Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 26, 2013
North Carolina coach Roy Williams started his offseason by losing a player early to the NBA draft, then spent the summer dealing with off-court trouble involving top scorer P.J. Hairston.
It’s easy to see why the Hall of Famer was so eager to immerse himself in preseason practices.
“I look around the locker room and see a bunch of kids that I’ve really enjoyed coaching through (early) practices,” Williams said. “I look around and see a bunch of kids that want to learn and want to get better. If they continue doing that, we’ll be able to compete. … I don’t try to determine what we’re going to be in April here in October.”
Williams is still facing a challenging few weeks ahead.
The biggest question is how long Hairston will be out after twice being cited by authorities in May and June while driving a rental car linked to a felon, raising the possibility of an NCAA rules violation for receiving improper benefits.
During the June traffic stop, Hairston was arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, though that charge was dismissed in July.
Then, nine days after that dismissal, Williams suspended Hairston indefinitely in July after he was also charged with speeding and reckless driving for driving 93 mph in a 65 mph zone along Interstate 85 near Salisbury. Hairston later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.
Williams has said Hairston will sit “games” and the decision will come before the Nov. 8 opener against Oakland.
“Well crap, the NCAA made a decision on (Texas A&M quarterback) Johnny Manziel in frickin’ two days,” Williams said. “It’s not all my choice kind of thing. I really don’t believe I’ll suspend him for half a game either.”
Williams allowed Hairston to practice when the team began workouts last month, though only after he completed 18 days of extra conditioning work.
Hairston averaged nearly 15 points last year and became the team’s leading scorer after moving into a four-guard starting lineup, which sparked the Tar Heels on a final-month surge that included an appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final.
Sophomore point guard Marcus Paige said Hairston’s situation hasn’t been a distraction.
“We’re pretty much moving past it,” Paige said. “We’re not even thinking about it anymore. He’s with us, he’s practicing with us, he’s hanging with us, we’re there for him.”
The Tar Heels lost junior guard Reggie Bullock to the NBA draft, who joined with Hairston to give UNC a potent perimeter combo. Bullock was the 12th player to leave early for the NBA draft as Williams enters his 11th season at his alma mater.
Playing without Bullock and Hairston to start the year, UNC faces a tough nonconference schedule that includes NCAA tournament participants Belmont and Davidson along with a trip to Michigan State and a visit from Kentucky by mid-December.
There’s also the chance of a matchup with reigning national champion Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament in November.
“I was dumb enough last year, I thought we’d have Reggie and P.J. both back, and Marcus would be so much better than he was as a freshman and I didn’t really care who we played,” Williams said. “Reggie’s gone, P.J. had a difficult summer and there are some more concerns there. . There is some concern with me, did we overschedule a little bit and if we did how do we get through it?”
Still, solving the challenge of early season Xs and Os beats dealing with the problems of the past few months.
“Summer was a lot of fun with my grandsons and my family and some of the things that we did,” Williams said. “It was a lot of fun with my most of my players. The distraction of what was going on with P.J. was not fun. … But the fact of the matter is, it’s what it was.
“I did want to get to the practice court and since I’ve got to the practice court I have loved coaching my team. I’ve only gone wacko one time in the first 12 practices and that’s pretty close to a record for me.”