North Carolina has a shooting guard back, just not the one most Tar Heels fans were hoping for, and not the one whose return would single-handedly vault UNC into the thick of the Final Four discussion.
Senior Leslie McDonald, who has had to sit out UNC's first nine games, was cleared to play Wednesday by the NCAA -- in official terms, he was "reinstated" -- after serving a suspension for, according to the NCAA's release, "numerous impermissible extra benefits ... which include the use of luxury cars, payment of parking tickets, a cell phone and lodging."
In all McDonald will have to repay $1,783 to a charity of his choice and can be on the court when the 14th-ranked Tar Heels tip off with Texas on Wednesday night in Chapel Hill.
The most interesting part of the NCAA's statement, however, comes in the final sentence, which reads, "At this time, McDonald's reinstatement request is the only one the NCAA has received from North Carolina."
That is a not-so thinly veiled reference to P.J. Hairston, a junior shooting guard whose eligibility remains in doubt. Hairston's public problems began with an early June arrest at a traffic stop in Durham where he was cited for misdemeanor marijuana possession and driving without a license. Charges were later dropped but a subsequent investigation into who rented that car Hairston was driving are believed to be what led to his being held out of every Carolina game so far this year.
A report Wednesday by Yahoo's Rand Getlin said "Hairston is unlikely to play this season" and "might decide to leave school and declare himself eligible for the NBA draft."
Hairston is certainly a pro prospect, a strong, skilled, 6-foot-5 wing with range well beyond the three-point line and the strength and quickness to get to the rim. He led the Tar Heels in scoring last year at 14.6 per game and shot 40 percent from the three-point line. Once he was inserted into the starting lineup in time for UNC's game at Duke, the Tar Heels went 9-4 the rest of the way, including a critical six-game winning streak that locked up what had once been a doubtful NCAA tournament bid.
McDonald, meanwhile, averaged 7.2 points per game last year and made 36 percent from three-point range. He is a fifth-year senior who has started just one game for the Tar Heels in his career and averaged only 5.8 points per game.
Still, even that modest production will be welcome for Carolina, which has a had to compensate for the absences of McDonald and Hairston by using two power forwards -- junior James Michael McAdoo and Isaiah Hicks -- at small forward at times. Sophomore Marcus Paige, last year's starter at the point, has moved to shooting guard and emerged as an early All-America candidate, averaging 19.2 points on 37.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Paige has been Carolina's only weapon from deep. He has made 21 of the team's 25 three-pointers and attempted 56 of their 84 shots from beyond the arc, meaning his teammates are a combined 4-for-28 from three.
The Tar Heels have been the nation's most inconsistent team this season, losing at home to Belmont and at UAB but beating Louisville (on a neutral court), Michigan State (on the road) and Kentucky (at home), giving them wins over the top three teams in the preseason AP top 25.
There are more stern tests ahead for Carolina, which plays Texas and Davidson in its next two games before embarking on an ACC slate that includes Duke, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. McDonald will provide depth, experience and some shooting -- especially at the free-throw line, where he is a 73 percent shooter for a team that is making 61 percent this year -- but he has notoriously struggled against high-level teams and is not the transformative presence that Hairston has already proved to be during his career.
If Wednesday's reports are accurate, however, Hairston may not return at all. If so, North Carolina will have to continue its turnaround without its most talented player.