By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
It’s safe to say that no one really knows what North Carolina team is going to show up on Sunday at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels try to extend their 56-game home dominance of Clemson.
So far this year, UNC has handed No. 3 Michigan State its only loss, when the Spartans were No. 1 in the country at the time and the game was played in East Lansing, Mich. The Tar Heels also beat No. 14 Kentucky as well as No. 12 Louisville. The Cardinals were ranked third in the country heading into that game.
But here are the head scratchers. North Carolina lost to Belmont at home. It lost to a UAB team that is 1-3 in Conference USA, needed overtime to hold off a Davidson team at home that Clemson beat by 31 points and lost to a Miami squad at home that is just a shell of the team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference last year.
“I think it is easy to look at other people’s situations and I don’t really want to judge that,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “The fact that they can play as well as they have in certain situations shows you when they are really clicking and playing well, they are as good as almost anybody in the country.”
But when the Tar Heels (11-7, 1-4 ACC) are not clicking and playing well, they are one of the worse teams in the ACC. In fact, heading into Sunday’s 6 p.m. tip they rank 13th in the newly expanded ACC standings.
“I do think consistency is challenging,” said Brownell, who has had his own issues with his squad this season. “I think there are better teams more than ever and because of that people may look at a Belmont loss or a UAB loss and maybe sometimes credit is not given to how good those teams are.
“Some of those teams are pretty good and some of those non-conference losses happened when they had a lot of things hanging over their head.”
Those issues hanging over UNC’s head have been mostly centered on guard P.J. Hairston, or the loss of him. In December, North Carolina announced it was not going to seek reinstatement from the NCAA for its junior guard and perhaps its best player.
Hairston led UNC in scoring last year at 14.6 points a game and made 89 three-pointers, the second-most in North Carolina single-season history.
It was a decision that ended Hairston’s career with the Tar Heels and a high-profile investigation that lasted more than six months. Hairston sat out the first 10 games of the season due to the investigation centered on his use of rental cars linked to convicted felon and Durham-based party promoter Haydn Thomas.
“When you are waiting to find out if players are going to be eligible and some guys are practicing with you, but you don’t know if they are going to play, it is hard,” Brownell said. “How do you formulate your team? How do you plan for your team when these guys come back or if they might not come back? I don’t think that is easy.
“I think there were some unique challenges they had to deal with early. Roy Williams has won a lot of games and national championships. He knows what he is doing.”
Williams, UNC’s head coach, was hoping guard Leslie McDonald could pick up the slack left behind by Hairston, but so far that has not happened. The senior is only averaging 9.8 points a game thus far from the No. 2 guard spot.
Right now, the Tar Heels are struggling to shoot the basketball as they rank near the bottom in the conference in scoring and field goal percentage. Believe it or not, always known for its ability to make threes and shoot well from the free throw line, North Carolina ranks last in the ACC in three-point shooting (.227) and 14th in free throw percentage (.573).
“I just think there are a lot of unique circumstances that have surrounded their season and sometimes all of that controversy and all of those extra things you are dealing with are not as easy as people think to deal with and block out right when you get to the court,” Brownell said.