Down Hairston, McDonald, Tar Heels shuffle lineup for opener
The men’s basketball season starts tonight for No. 12 North Carolina. Just not for two of UNC’s top players.
Leading scorer P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, the Tar Heels’ only scholarship senior, will both sit out tonight’s home game against Oakland (9 p.m., Fox Sports Carolinas) because of “an ongoing compliance issue with the university and the NCAA,” team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Thursday.
Instead, freshman point guard Nate Britt and sophomore small forward J.P. Tokoto are expected to make their first career starts, with sophomore Marcus Paige — last year’s starting point guard — moving to shooting guard.
Though it was expected after both players sat out last week’s exhibition game, the announcement about Hairston and McDonald was a marked change from when UNC started practice six weeks ago.
At that point, coach Roy Williams said that the length of Hairston’s suspension “will be decided before the season starts, there’s no question,” and that “nobody told me I need to be concerned about” McDonald.
Williams took a more passive stance Thursday, saying his role in the process is “waiting for somebody to tell me what’s going on.”
“It is frustrating but it’s also a long process,” Williams said. “We’re trying to do what we can do, the NCAA is trying to do what they can do. That’s what it is. I’m sure the NCAA would like to settle all their cases in five minutes, too, but we just have to try to continue to work with them and work with our student-athletes and do the best job we can do, and we’ll see what happens.”
UNC has not disclosed the nature of Hairston or McDonald’s potential NCAA violations. But Hairston was pulled over by police twice over the summer while driving a rental car connected to a local party promoter, and McDonald endorsed a designer mouthguard company via Twitter. The school sent a cease-and-desist letter to the company, which also used McDonald’s image on its website.
It’s generally against NCAA rules for athletes to promote products or to receive a benefit not available to regular students.
Hairston and McDonald have been practicing regularly, with Williams saying that Hairston “has played about as well at this point in the season as anybody I’ve ever had,” though they were put on the second team for the past week in anticipation of their suspensions.
The absence of Hairston, McDonald and Reggie Bullock — who turned pro after his junior year — means that Paige is the only returning player who made more than two 3-pointers last season. The team shot 3-of-15 (20 percent) from behind the arc in last week’s exhibition game against UNC Pembroke.
Because of the absence of wing players, UNC will likely start with a freshman point guard for the second straight season, as Paige slides over to make room for Britt.
“He can attack, he can play at a fast pace, he’s a quarterback,” Williams said of Britt, an Upper Marlboro, Md., native. “Those things I really treasure.”
Tokoto, who averaged 2.6 points in 8.6 minutes last season, will take Hairston’s place at small forward, while junior James Michael McAdoo returns to his natural position of power forward after spending the end of last season at center as UNC went to a four-guard lineup.
Williams didn’t name a starting center Thursday, joking that it “depends who brings me the best piece of dessert to practice tonight.”
Sophomore Joel James, freshman Kennedy Meeks and junior Desmond Hubert took turns playing center against UNC Pembroke.
With lingering questions about two of his top players, Williams said it’s been the most difficult offseason and preseason of his career. Still, he thinks the team’s morale is high heading into the opener.
“The anxiety level’s there but I think they’ve handled it really well,” Williams said. “I’ve been surprised, to be honest with you. I don’t think our club has felt that there’s a distraction. … Guys really have done a nice job. I don’t think it’s been a real concern. Deep down you know it has to be something, but I haven’t seen it affect us in practice by any means.”
NOTES — UNC has won 80 of its last 82 home openers. … With 357 career 3-pointers, Oakland senior Travis Bader is on pace to break the NCAA record of 457 set by Duke’s J.J. Redick … Senior Duke Mondy led the NCAA in steals last season with 100. … The Tar Heels beat Oakland 96-68 in the first round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament in the only prior meeting between the teams. … The Golden Grizzlies were picked to finish fourth in the Horizon League. … Nov. 8 is the earliest season opener in program history.