Leslie set the tone last month in Raleigh by attacking James Michael McAdoo off the dribble and drawing two fouls in the first two minutes. The Holly Springs, N.C. junior won’t have that quickness advantage over Hairston, although Leslie will have a four-inch height advantage.
Hairston, who will start at the four for the fourth consecutive game, told reporters on Friday the key to defending Leslie is staying in front of him.
“With me being smaller than him, height-wise, I feel like I can kind of stay up under him and force him to do things he doesn’t want to do,” said Hairston, who outweighs the ACC Preseason Player of the Year by 20 pounds.
Junior wing Reggie Bullock believes the Hairston-Leslie tilt is a good matchup for the Tar Heels.
“I see C.J. as more of a face-up four than a back-to-the-basket type four man,” Bullock said. “With us sticking P.J. in that position, P.J.’s strong enough to play down low. He’s a guard, just with the strength of a four man.”
While Hairston’s defensive obstacles in the post have drawn plenty of media attention, his offensive exploits are equally as telling. The sophomore guard is averaging 20.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game since entering the starting lineup against Duke.
Thirteen of those rebounds have been of the offensive variety. Leslie is N.C. State’s second-leading rebounder in conference play (7.8), but he does most of his work on the defensive glass.
Leslie is averaging one offensive rebound every 17.7 minutes in league play. Hairston, on the other hand, is pulling down one offensive rebound every 14.3 minutes. With North Carolina already having to account for arguably the ACC’s top rebounder in Richard Howell (12.2 in ACC games), Hairston will have to limit Leslie’s chances on the offensive glass while adding extra possessions for UNC on the other end.
Williams has harped on the continued importance of rebounding even with his new small lineup. The Tar Heels have managed that challenge effectively, battling to a near draw against Duke (38-39) and splitting with Virginia (33-24) and Georgia Tech (38-43).
“It hasn’t been a factor that’s just killed us,” Williams said, adding that he foresees UNC playing with two post players more against N.C. State than he has in the previous three games.
Hairston will be a tough defend for Leslie due to his ability to pull the Wolfpack forward outside of his comfort zone. The Greensboro, N.C. product has gotten more open looks from deep since moving to the four.
“Usually the bigs don’t want to switch the guard-to-guard screen,” Hairston said. “With me being at the four as a guard, the bigs that are guarding me are just helping off me and as soon as I slip screen on my man, I’m rolling to the basket or I’m rolling out for a three. Usually the big men are used to other big men rolling to the basket, which gives me the opportunity to pop out, which makes me so much more open.”
Not only does Hairston’s position move provide him with more offensive potential, it also opens lanes for all of his teammates. Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige are averaging a combined 19.7 points per game since the lineup switch, while also dishing out 22 assists against eight turnovers.
With one less big occupying the lane, N.C. State guard Scott Wood will have a difficult time stopping dribble penetration from either player. Strickland will likely be tasked with chasing the taller Wood around screens, a job that Bullock has done successfully over the past two seasons.
Bullock, however, will set his sights on T.J. Warren, who will start for the second game in a row in place of guard Rodney Purvis. Warren scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in N.C. State’s 84-66 win over Florida State on Tuesday.
“T.J. is a tweener; he can play inside,” Williams said. “He’s played the 4-spot for them quite a bit this year and he’s also played the 3-spot. I think he’s more of a perimeter player than he is a post player.”
N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried pointed to improved rebounding on Friday as a key reason for Warren’s move into the starting lineup. The Wolfpack outrebounded the Seminoles by 24 after losing the rebounding battle in its three previous games.
Rebounding is Howell’s specialty, which places an even greater emphasis on his matchup with McAdoo. Howell is a load inside, but he’s been plagued by foul trouble throughout his career. In 13 ACC games this season, he’s fouled out twice, picked up four fouls in five games and three fouls in nine total.
McAdoo took advantage of his quickness advantage against Georgia Tech, scoring 22 points by method of seven dunks and/or layups. Leslie got McAdoo in foul trouble by drawing him out and dribbling around him early in Raleigh. A similar approach could work against Howell, provided McAdoo doesn’t settle for the mid-range jumpers that N.C. State will likely grant him.
After three games working with this new lineup, the Tar Heels have begun to understand its strengths and weaknesses.
“I think they understand we have some liabilities for going small, but we also have an opportunity to cause some matchup problems for them on the other end,” Williams said.
Which team takes most advantage of those matchups will likely emerge victorious on Saturday.