Hairston, Heels prepared for rematch against Pack
North Carolina’s perimeter-oriented starting lineup is about to face its toughest challenge defensively when N.C. State visits the Smith Center today (4 p.m., ESPN).
Senior Richard Howell is sixth nationally in rebounding (10.9) and has more double-doubles (15) than any Wolfpack player since Tommy Burleson in 1973-74, while junior C.J. Leslie is averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds over his past seven games.
“They’ve got two big inside players that take the ball to the basket against big guys,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They’re really going to take the ball to the basket against little guys, so it is something to be concerned about.”
Still, Williams said he would stick with the smaller lineup against the Wolfpack, with forward James Michael McAdoo (6-9, 230) guarding the bulkier Howell (6-8, 257) and wing player P.J. Hairston (6-5½, 220) covering the taller Leslie (6-9, 200).
Williams traditionally has relied on a strong post game, but the Tar Heels (18-8, 8-5 ACC) have seemed rejuvenated since his decision to go without a traditional center in the lineup. UNC lost by five at then-No. 2 Duke, put up 93 points against Virginia’s stingy defense and won comfortably at Georgia Tech.
After starting the first 10 conference games, sophomore center Desmond Hubert has played just six minutes in three games since being replaced by Hairston in the starting five.
“I’d like to get the basketball inside more and have a better balance, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t have that kind of player right now,” Williams said. “So whether I’m comfortable or not, you have to put guys out there that give you the best chance to win.”
Rebounding seems to be a concern — N.C. State (19-7, 8-5) had a 45-21 edge on the glass Tuesday against Florida State. But the Tar Heels have outrebounded their opponents by three since going to a smaller lineup.
Besides, Williams hopes a faster, more offensively potent lineup will make up for any problems on defense. N.C. State had a 20-0 edge in fast break points when they beat UNC 91-83 four weeks ago in Raleigh.
“We have some liabilities with going small,” Williams said. “But we also have an opportunity to cause some matchup problems with them on the other end.”
Hairston scored 19 points in 17 minutes in that first meeting. He has continued that scoring pace since entering the lineup, averaging 20.7 points, while also averaging 6.7 rebounds and holding his own in the post.
Hairston, who played power forward during his senior year at Hargrave Military Academy, most recently was matched up against Georgia Tech’s Robert Carter Jr., who is listed at 6-8, 245.
“It was a lot to deal with for the most part, but I feel like I’m strong enough to hold my weight down there and sort of contain him,” Hairston said. “I don’t have to stop him, just force him to do things he doesn’t want to do.”
That also will be his strategy with Leslie, who Hairston guarded occassionally at the Greater N.C. Pro-Am in Durham this summer.
Still Williams, who never has lost in nine games against N.C. State at the Smith Center, said this recent reliance on outside players doesn’t signal a permanent change in his philosophy.
“I’m not giving up on our big guys, I can tell you that,” Williams said. “Because they’re going to get great opportunities from now until the day they put me under the ground to be players.”
NOTES — Williams said that freshman center Joel James (concussion) has been cleared for contact activity and began practicing again on Thursday, but his availability for Saturday still was in doubt. “We’ll just have to see ... if he has his conditioning back enough to play in a game,” Williams said. James hasn’t played since Feb. 9. ... N.C. State hasn’t swept the regular-season series against North Carolina since 2003, which also was the most recent time the Wolfpack won in Chapel Hill. ... Williams was fighting a cold when he met with the media Friday. On his way out of the room, he joked, “I’ll feel better if we play better.”