As the season tipped off Friday night, Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels were without two of their top players. After an offseason full of trouble, it was no surprise that P.J. Hairston would not be suiting up. Teammate Leslie McDonald also did not dress, as the NCAA is investigating individual cases of impermissible benefits involving the two players. When Hairston and McDonald will be back is still greatly unknown.
Hairston averaged 14.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists as a sophomore, while connecting on 40 percent of his three-point attempts in 23.6 minutes of playing time. McDonald's junior season averages were 7.2 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 17.7 minutes of on-court action.
McDonald, the team's lone scholarship senior, and Hairston, stand 6'5" and 6'6", respectively, and would almost assuredly be slotted alongside sophomore point guard Marcus Paige in the Carolina backcourt. Without them, freshman Nate Britt is starting at the off-guard, while J.P. Tokoto got the start at small forward.
Tokoto seized the opportunity, scoring 13 points, grabbing three rebounds, dishing out five assists and swiping four steals in 30 minutes of action. The season opener marked single-game highs for Tokoto in points, assists, steals and minutes, after playing sparse minutes as a freshman.
Britt, the 90th-ranked player in the 2013 Rivals rankings, played beside Paige, though Britt is also listed as a point guard. In 22 minutes of action, Britt contributed four points and three assists in his first collegiate contest. Britt and Tokoto did combine to turn the ball over eight times.
Without their veteran wings, UNC will employ a bigger lineup. Of the the nine players that played double-digit minutes in the 84-61 victory over Oakland, six are listed as forwards. Britt, Paige, and junior Luke Davis were the lone guards to play extended minutes.
After leading 58-21 at halftime, Oakland won the second stanza 40-26, making the margin of defeat more respectable. Oakland sharpshooting guard Travis Bader scored 18 points on 4-of-11 shooting from deep. Bader averaged 22 PPG last season, so hats off to the Tar Heel fill-ins that limited his looks.
UNC's first true test will come on Dec. 4, when they travel to East Lansing to take on Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans. Even at full strength, a road win there would be quite a feat. Without Hairston and McDonald, thus leaving Williams with less depth, that game could get ugly and fast.
Ten days later, the Tar Heels host Kentucky in what could likely end in a loss should Hairston and McDonald not be cleared before then. Aside from contests against the nation's top two teams, the Tar Heels could still enter ACC play with a 10-2 record, a decent mark for a team playing shorthanded.
In Hairston and McDonald's absence, expect opposing defenses to focus on James Michael McAdoo even more. Paige needs to make a big leap after a steady freshman season. Tokoto and Britt must look to score, while reserves Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks will also playing greater roles than previously anticipated.
Losing Hairston and McDonald is certainly not a good thing for UNC's chances of success in 2013-14. They are two of the team's most experienced players and have been proven performers in the past. When they come back, they will be welcome additions. Until then though, UNC must roll with what they have.