After junior wing P.J. Hairston was suspended indefinitely on July 28 for his third run-in with the law in three months, he gathered his fellow Tar Heels in the locker room. UNC's leading scorer last season then apologized for his transgressions. "It wasn't one of those cliché 'Sorry, guys,' " junior forward James Michael McAdoo says. "It was definitely something that he took responsibility for."
Hairston had plenty to explain. The speeding ticket last May in a car rented by an associate of convicted felon Haydn (Fats) Thomas. The arrest a month later for driving without a license and marijuana possession in a car Hairston also told police was rented for him by Thomas. (Both charges were eventually dropped.) The citations in late July for speeding and careless and reckless driving, for which he went to court and paid a fine.
After enduring an off-season running program that coach Roy Williams calls "the most difficult thing that I ever had a player do," Hairston was allowed to start practicing in late September but will miss a yet-to-be-determined number of games. This could be significant because the Heels' brutal nonconference schedule includes Michigan State and Kentucky. It could be even more damaging if fellow wing Leslie McDonald is also held out of games. (The school has talked with the NCAA about McDonald for what is believed to be his promotion on social media of a designer mouth guard.) Both players stretch defenses with their three-point shooting ability—Hairston's 89 threes last year were second most in North Carolina history—helping McAdoo & Co. inside. McAdoo, who has struggled with his jumper and with turnovers, spent the off-season trying to break bad habits such as releasing his shot in front of his face and rushing through his moves. He'll have to carry the offense until Hairston returns.
UNC arguably has the nation's toughest schedule with a likely matchup against Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, a home date vs. Kentucky and a road game at Michigan State, meaning the Tar Heels will play SI's preseason No. 1, 2 and 3 teams before the new year. Oh, and two games vs. No. 4 and rival Duke await in ACC play, as does a trip to No. 8 Syracuse.
With the uncertainty surrounding the early-season availability of wings Hairston and McDonald, high-flying sophomore J.P. Tokoto is being depended on at a position where the Tar Heels have little depth. "We need him to be a player," Williams says. So far though, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound skywalker is still best known for being a YouTube dunking sensation. His biggest highlight last season was a staged one-handed jam over 6-foot-10 teammate Joel James during a practice. Otherwise, Tokoto struggled, particularly with his shot (1-of-11 on 3s and 38.5 percent on FTs) and decision-making (31 turnovers to 27 assists) as his playing time dwindled significantly down the stretch. But during the off-season, Tokoto refined his jump shot by keeping his right elbow closer in at the behest of UNC assistant coach and former NBA sharpshooter Hubert Davis. Williams has already seen improvement in Tokoto's shooting and says he is also committing fewer turnovers. "He's going to have an opportunity to play some significant minutes," Williams says, "and I think he's going to do very well with it."
Telling Number: 28.2
UNC's offensive free throw rate (free throws attempts/field goal attempts) was the worst of any team to make the NCAA tournament last season and ranked 335th nationally.
Q&A with Head Coach Roy Williams
SI.com: Who is the face of your program?
Williams: Either Marcus Paige or James Michael McAdoo. They do a great job in the classroom. They're great leaders, on-and-off the court. They're responsible young men. They're pretty doggone good players and they're the kind of leaders that you want to have in any aspect of life. They're that well-rounded. They are the face of our program right now.
SI.com: North Carolina has a storied history of star power forwards. James Michael McAdoo seemingly has all the physical attributes to be a dominant player, but those talents haven't completely translated on the court. Is it reasonable he can still join that lineage or should expectations be tempered?
Williams: I don't like to compare players to say that so-and-so looks like this guy because that's unfair. There's no another Michael Jordan. There's no other James Worthy. There's no other Ty Lawson or Tyler Hansbrough. James Michael came in with really high expectations and struggled through about half of his freshman year like most freshmen do, but the expectations were so high that people then all of the sudden really criticized him unbelievably harshly. Then at the end of the year when John Henson got hurt, he stepped in and did some really nice things for us. At that time, Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall were still on our team so the defenses of the other teams were aimed at those guys so James Michael was sort of under-the-radar. But what that did it got everybody's expectations way up in the air again. Last year, he averaged a little over 14 points a game and 7 rebounds a game or something and went through a phase where all of the sudden he went from the four-man power forward, not your low-post center type position, to changing to playing with four little guys and now he's the biggest guy on the court. I thought he did very well for us last year. It's still everybody else's expectations. We've had talks. He can't live on everybody else's expectations. He's just got to work extremely hard and be the best that James Michael McAdoo can be.
SI.com: North Carolina has also had great point guards. But last season, Marcus Paige didn't seem to be a natural fit for the way you like to play. What's your confidence level in him?
Williams: It's extremely high because I thought last year he really did a nice job. He came in to college thinking he was going back up Kendall Marshall for a year. Kendall had such a good year that he decided to go the NBA, where he was 13th player picked...Marcus thought he was going to learn from Kendall and play a little bit with Kendall. Then all of the sudden, he is the only true point guard in the program. That was a lot to throw at him. The point guard is the most difficult position. He did some good things early, but his shot just didn't go in. I kept saying all year that he's really a good shooter. Then down the stretch he started making some big shots for us in big games. I think the second half of the season he played exceptionally well. I think he's a really good fit for the way that we like to play and I think he'll show that just this year.
SI.com: There are questions about the interior consistency of your team. During the second half of last season, you went with a smaller lineup that really paid off down the stretch. Will we see more or less of that type of lineup this season?
Williams: I'm hopeful that we'll go with a more traditional where we have two big guys in the game. Last year, we did go to a small lineup and I think it helped us because we were having problems scoring and we got scenarios where we had two or three 3-point shooters on the court at the same time. But at the end of the year also, we really did a poor job of defending the rim so the other team's field-goal percentage was very high and we did a poor job of rebounding. Over the years, we've been one of the better rebounding teams...Last year, we didn't rebound it very well. We want to go with the big lineup of two big guys. There might be some times this year we have three in the game, but we do need one of those big guys to really step up and not have to do it by committee. We need one or two to step up and say they're going to be big-time players for us.
SI.com: You also haven't been afraid to let freshmen play key roles i.e. guys like Tyler Hansbrough. Therefore, what are realistic expectations for highly touted freshman power forward Isaiah Hicks.
Williams: Isaiah is a big-time athlete. Right now, he's just running around, smiling and enjoying life. He doesn't realize that it's going to get awfully tough. He's doing some good things for us. He is athletic. He's just trying to feel his way and see what is going to be the right kind of style of play for him to use. He's 6-8 with long arms. He's not strictly a low-post player. He's not a three-man 3-point shooter type of guy. We've got to get him in situations of rebounding the ball, running and getting the ball in the open floor and doing some good things.
SI.com: Some believe you have mishandled the P.J. Hairston situation. What's your response to that criticism?
Williams: I can't be everything that everybody wants me to be. I've got to be what I want to be. I've got to be a coach. I've got to be a mentor. I've got to be a caretaker. At the same time, everybody's got opinions. They're like noses, everyone's got one. But I'm the only guy that goes and sits in the living room and talks to mom and dad about each player. I'm the only guy that promises them I'm going to try to treat their son like I would want my son to be treated so I can't be concerned about that...You can't run your life being worried about people that criticize you. We've been very fortunate. We've won games and I've had people criticize me. We've lost games and I've really had people criticize me, but I can't be driven by that. I've got to do what I think is best.