For the second week in a row, a school spokesperson opened UNC’s weekly press conference by announcing that Hairston and McDonald would not play against Holy Cross on Friday night as the school and NCAA work together to resolve eligibility issues.
“It’s what it is,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said when asked about the early season uncertainty. “Everybody’s trying to do their best and we’re trying to move along.”
Sophomore guard Marcus Paige was less politically correct in his take.
“I’m honestly extremely frustrated,” Paige said. “I know a lot of us are. It’s tough. It’d just be nice to know so we could move on.”
While the eligibility situation is out of Williams’s control, how he prepares his available roster is well within his power. Hairston and McDonald continue to practice, although their time spent working with the white team – UNC’s starting unit – has been significantly reduced.
Both players practiced at length with the white team during the early part of preseason practice, but as the season opener rolled around with no final decision on their status in sight, Williams adjusted his approach to build consistency and chemistry within his lineups.
“We’ve shifted a little bit more to playing me at the two to start practice just because we know we’re going to have to play a game or two – or however many – with that lineup,” Paige said.
Paige played all but two of his 32 minutes at the two in UNC’s season-opening 84-61 win over Oakland last Friday, while James Michael McAdoo played 10 of his 28 minutes at the 3-spot. Nate Britt started at point guard, J.P. Tokoto logged 30 minutes on the wing and a caravan of players, led by Joel James and Kennedy Meeks, rotated in at the five.
Getting reps in practice that match those types of game situations has been beneficial, according to Paige.
“[It] has really helped our offense look a little bit better in practice,” Paige said. “It helps sharpen some things up to where guys aren’t playing a position the entire time in practice and then getting thrown in maybe at a different position in the game.”
The most surprising aspect of UNC’s first win of the season, given the shortened rotation, was how efficient the team looked in the first half. The Tar Heels built a 58-21 lead by shooting 74.2 percent and scoring 15 points off turnovers.
UNC shot just 41.7 percent in the second half, however, and was outscored by 14 points.
When asked which half was more indicative of his team’s expected play for the season, Williams replied: “I have no idea.”
“I would love to say the first half, but we played better then than we have in any day of practice,” he continued. “And, in the second half, we played about as poorly as we have in any day of practice. Probably somewhere in between is the real team, but hopefully we can push them each and every day to try to get closer to that first half.”
There’s plenty of value in the first-half performance, though, especially when it comes confidence in general and to the three-man freshman class specifically.
“In practice, you have your ups and downs and you have Coach getting on you and stuff, but to see what he’s been preaching translate to the game as well as it did in the first half, it helps you believe in what we’re doing here, what we’re trying to get accomplished and what type of team we could be,” Paige said. “We showed a lot of potential in that half.”
Paige added that he’s not concerned about the lethargic second half in the opener. The Tar Heels are focused on the positives, not knowing what tomorrow might bring when it comes to the eligibility cases.
“We’re trying to get better every day in practice,” Paige said. “It’s hard to know what type of team we’re going to be yet, just because we’ve only had one game, so we’re not too worried about that.”
UNC will have a better understanding of its position on the national stage with eight games over the next four weeks, including a potential trio of top-five teams in No. 3 Louisville, No. 2 Michigan State and No. 1 Kentucky.