CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina is getting by on the perimeter while its two best outside shooters sit with NCAA eligibility concerns.
The No. 18 Tar Heels (6-2) host No. 11 Kentucky on Saturday with a perimeter rotation that consists primarily of sophomores Marcus Paige and J.P. Tokoto, and freshman Nate Britt.
While the Tar Heels miss leading scorer P.J. Hairston and senior Leslie McDonald, the Paige-Tokoto-Britt trio has been good enough to help UNC upset Louisville and Michigan State in the past month.
“I think we’re just finding what works,” Paige said Thursday. “We understand as a perimeter unit, shooting 3s isn’t a strength of ours so we’re not jacking up 12 3s, 14 3s a game. We understand our strengths are inside and if we play a lot of defense and get out in the passing lanes, then we can be effective.”
It’s not what coach Roy Williams had envisioned before the season, when Hairston returned for his junior season after flirting with the NBA draft. Hairston and McDonald were expected to provide plenty of outside scoring punch, but neither has played while the school works with the NCAA to review their eligibility.
Authorities twice cited Hairston during the offseason while he drove a rental vehicle linked to a felon and party promoter. The school hasn’t specified McDonald’s issue, though it had to send a letter ordering a company making designer mouth guards to stop using McDonald on its web site over the summer.
Williams has juggled his lineup in their absence.
Britt has started at the point while Paige — who by default became the team’s best outside shooter — moved over to play on the wing. It also opened more minutes for Tokoto on the wing.
Each of the three average at least 25 minutes, with junior reserve Luke Davis seeing spot duty in relief.
Paige is averaging a team-best 18.8 points and shooting 39 percent from 3-point range, including a career-high 32 points against Louisville. Britt has been in double figures for two straight games, starting with his season-high 13 points in last week’s road upset of then-No. 1 Michigan State.
Tokoto, a gifted athlete and leaper, worked through the offseason to improve his shooting range. He had a huge performance at Michigan State, finishing with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“The perimeter guys have done some good things,” Williams said. “We need to get J.P. to focus a little bit more on the backboards on the offensive end because he has had some really good moments. I’d like Marcus to keep shooting with a high percentage … and Nate to not turn it over as much, to have the better assist ratio, make some drives and those kinds of things.”
As for Hairston and McDonald, there’s still no timetable on when — or if — the two will return.
“I’m sure that the NCAA would like for it to be over with, too,” Williams said. “But there’s no update. There’s nothing else. We’re just staying the course and I’m sure they’re trying to do everything they can, too.”
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