Hairston gives UNC added strength and skill

After a season pockmarked with ugly, embarrassing losses unbecoming to North Carolina basketball, the Tar Heels finally may be forcing their way into the NCAA Tournament.

UNC has improved its record to 18-8 and 8-5 in the ACC. This week, the Tar Heels routed Georgia Tech 70-58 in Atlanta — where victories have proved elusive for Roy Williams — despite shooting only 38 percent. After spending most of the season on the tournament bubble, Carolina has pushed its RPI rating into the top 25 and thus appears reasonably safe, short of a late-season slide, to earn admission to the field.

Carolina’s surge certainly owes largely to P.J. Hairston’s insertion into the starting lineup. The sophomore had served as this team’s proverbial back-up quarterback, the most popular player on the squad each time the Heels underachieved.

But in this case, the fans had it right all along. Williams consistently met responses to queries about Hairston with a combination of deflection and sarcasm, but since opting for a small lineup with Hairston at power forward and James Michael McAdoo at center (former starter Desmond Hubert has moved into a reserve role), he has stated simply that machinations behind the scenes delayed Hairston’s ascension.

But Hairston alone doesn’t explain the team’s turnaround. After all, the Heels played perhaps their best road game of the season versus Tech while Hairston shot just 4-for-15 from the field. Rather, his impact on the team transcends his individual play.

Though he gives up size to most opponents defensively — a problem that superior opponents will be able to exploit — Hairston’s presence gives UNC another jump shooter who expands the offense. The big guys who may score on him at close-range tend to be slower and thus struggle to guard him on the perimeter, and their abdication of paint responsibilities opens up driving lanes for McAdoo and Carolina’s guards.

UNC’s offensive efficiency has risen into the top 35 at This season had featured a sputtering, top-50 offense, but over the past two weeks the Heels have made a significant leap.

Williams will continue to juggle personnel from game to game, and this weekend’s showdown versus N.C. State will challenge Carolina’s small lineup. The Wolfpack are a more physical team than Duke, Virginia or Georgia Tech, and Hairston and McAdoo could find themselves over-matched and in foul trouble.

State will provide a key benchmark. The Heels performed disastrously in Raleigh last month, and the return game at home will offer them an opportunity to reverse the negative perceptions that have hounded the team all season.

Click here to view the UNC/GT box score.