The North Carolina Tar Heels sure have had their offseason ups and downs, mainly due to a certain troublemaker. However there is still plenty to be excited about in Chapel Hill as a bolstered squad returns for another run into March.
The aforementioned troublemaker is emerging star P.J. Hairston. His strong second half for the Tar Heels last season had many delighted to see what he had in store for this season, until a few unwise decisions hampered his impact for the upcoming season.
Hairston was suspended indefinitely after a summer of troubling incidents including being arrested for driving without a license and marijuana charges (which were later dropped) as well as the most recent reckless driving charges, as originally reported by USA TODAY.
North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham has told some (including UNC journalism professor Andy Bechtel) that Hairston would play some games this season, “but not all.”
With the loss of Reggie Bullock to the NBA Draft, Hairston seemed to have a large part to play in the immediate future of the team. He still might, if Cunningham’s words play out, but without him, the Heels are suddenly terribly light on the perimeter. Only redshirt senior Leslie McDonald can claim any real experience beyond the arc. Surely sophomore wing J.P. Tokoto will be expected to make a marked improvement, especially if a leap in minutes is headed his way.
Despite the negative attention surrounding the Tar Heels, there are numerous reasons that they can improve this season, one of the brightest of them being returning point guard Marcus Paige. Paige showed flashes of brilliance at times last season (14 pts, 8 ast, 0 turnovers against NC State comes to mind), but also showed the signs a high school player learning the ropes at the next level. When so much responsibility yielded genuine growth in his first season at UNC, it’s only reasonable to think that Paige’s progression should come along nicely in his second.
The previous poster-boy for North Carolina, James Michael McAdoo, has also returned for this season. Last season, he was the highest touted of the Tar Heels, but tended to disappear at critical moments early in the season. Whether it was his lack of inside presence or his iffy attacking game, McAdoo hardly lived up to pre-season expectations.
One of the problems in UNC’s attack last season was their use of the post. Head coach Roy Williams’ system requires massive amounts of rebounds from the frontcourt. McAdoo, while talented, isn’t the best rebounder by a long shot. He tends to rely on his speed, rather than his size to defend.
But McAdoo’s (and UNC’s) salvation may come in the form of two gargantuan recruits to join the team this year. Williams has roped in two beasts of the block in power forward Isaiah Hicks and center Kennedy Meeks.
To Williams’ credit, he identified a problem and fixed it by filling the hole with the large presence of Meeks and Hicks. Hicks, 6’8”, 210 lbs., isn’t the biggest post threat, but what his body lacks he makes up for in athleticism. In the final high school game of his career, Hicks posted a 34-point, 30-rebound game in the North Carolina state championship. He’s a strong attacker and proven shot-blocker, making him a welcome addition on both sides of the ball.
Meeks, on the other hand, has the body to command the paint. At 6’9” and 275, he hardly relies on superb athletic ability to command the low post. His strong hands and good footwork make him an excellent rebounder and finisher, which stirs up memories of former UNC great Sean May.
The Tar Heels also have a great cast of returning support after the recruiting class from 2012 just gets another year older. With more experience, forward Brice Johnson may be able to give more solid minutes on the defensive end, one of his main lapses last season. Center Joel James has the body for the position and if his hands have improved he can be a dangerous offensive weapon, a sight only briefly glimpsed last season.
Recruiting, rebounding, and running are the three R’s of Roy Williams’ proven system. We’ve already seen the first work well, and if the other two come this season it wouldn't be surprising to see Ol’ Roy cutting down a third net in April.