UNC’s bench outscored its starting five, 47-36, on Saturday. Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo, in typical fashion, scored 23 of those 36 points.
Desmond Hubert, while technically a starter, only played 10 minutes. The sophomore forward did play the first six minutes, however, and subbed out after N.C. State built a 15-7 lead.
Hubert’s starting status continues to be a minor detail, though, in discussing UNC’s problems in the backcourt.
Entering Saturday’s contest, starting guards Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige were averaging a combined 9.0 points on 27.6 percent shooting in conference play. Against the Wolfpack, the duo combined for 13 points on 4-of-18 shooting, which included a 1-of-9 shooting display in the first half. Paige missed his first eight shots.
Paige logged 29 minutes to Strickland’s 26, while fan favorite P.J. Hairston scored 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting (5-of-8 3-pointers) in just 17 minutes.
When asked why he only played seven minutes after halftime, Hairston replied: “I have no clue.”
It is worth noting that UNC head coach Roy Williams alternated Hairston and J.P. Tokoto for offense and defense over the final three minutes, so defensive liabilities could have played a role.
While Hairston didn’t have an answer concerning his lack of minutes, Paige and Strickland were well aware of why they were pulled early in the second half – defense.
Williams told reporters on Friday that he had threatened to pull both Paige and Strickland from the starting lineup several weeks ago due to poor defensive grades.
On Saturday, Williams yanked both less than four minutes into the second half. Paige sat on the bench for six minutes and Strickland came back in after five.
“He pulled Dexter and me [because] we missed a defensive assignment; we didn’t sprint back,” Paige said. “He was sending a message to us that we have to set the tone defensively. He shouldn’t have to do something like that. We’ve been playing enough games now where he shouldn’t have to bench us for not doing our job.”
Paige brushed aside the notion that his defensive lapse might have been part of his continuing learning curve.
“I knew pretty clear exactly what we needed to do,” Paige said. “It’s just in the heat of the game, if you don’t do it one time, it can really change the entire game. We didn’t do it and he reacted.”
Hairston subbed in for Strickland at the 16:25 mark, but was pulled after committing a turnover 40 seconds later. The sophomore guard wouldn’t return until the 7:09 mark.
A growing portion of the fan base continue to ask why Hairston’s minutes lag behind the starting backcourt’s despite serving as a better offensive option. It would be one thing if Paige and Strickland were consistent enough on the defensive end to mask their offensive deficiencies, but Williams’s comments over the past two days suggest that’s not the case.
When asked recently about possibly moving Hairston into the starting lineup, Williams responded: “Right now, I think he’s more valuable coming off the bench.”
Who starts and who doesn’t is ultimately up to Williams. It’s problematic, however, when three members of the starting lineup combine for 13 points on 4-of-18 shooting in a critical ACC game against an in-state rival.