Hairston playing big role in smaller lineup

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -– After a frustrating freshman season, North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston was hoping to play a bigger role for the Tar Heels this year.

The 6-foot-5 shooter just never expected that would mean spending some time at the '4' -- a position usually reserved for bigger guys.

“I do like it though -- because the smaller lineup gives us more shooters on the floor, gives us a different look,’’ the reserve said Tuesday. “It puts pressure on the other team that they have to guard us as much as we have to guard them.”

And therein might reside a much-needed advantage for No. 20 UNC, which next plays Saturday, vs. East Tennessee State.

With last season's starting frontcourt of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes all playing in the NBA, inexperience in the post has led to a revolving door at center; sophomore Desmond Hubert, freshman Brice Johnson and freshman Joel James have all been in and out of the starting lineup beside sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo (15.8 ppg, 28.4 mpg).

Unlike years past, it’s a young, inexperienced big-man group susceptible to getting pushed around -- a la against Butler last month in the Maui Invitational, when the Tar Heels got behind by as many as 29 points before coach Roy Williams inserted Hairston at the '4’ and utilized a smaller lineup to rally. The Tar Heels didn’t win the game, but they did close to within six points.

UNC also used the shorter lineup when UAB went small last Saturday. And Williams said he would liked to have utilized it last week at No. 1 Indiana, when his team got blown out (Hairston was sidelined with a knee injury for that game).

“For us, especially in the UAB game -- and go back to the Butler game, we made a tremendous comeback on them -- but what we did on the defensive end on the floor, with a smaller lineup, we were quicker,’’ Williams said Monday during his weekly radio show. “… We’ve had guys in the past like Tyler Hansbrough who could slide his feet so well, I didn’t care how small the other team went, because he could really guard anybody. So we didn’t change that time, we kept our advantage with size.

“But right now, it’s a battle -- do I go small to match them, or do I try to go big and use our advantage there? But our big guys that give us the advantage are so young, it’s not really much of an advantage right now.”

Where UNC should have an advantage right now is on the wing. Junior Reggie Bullock (12.3 ppg, 48.7 percent on 3-pointers), redshirt junior Leslie McDonald (9.9 ppg, 50 percent on 3-pointers) and Hairston (11.6, 34.1 percent on 3-pointers) are all experienced, and have a dangerous ability to connect in a flurry from the the outside.

In addition, Hairston (who also still plays the wing positions) has made it a point to take the ball to the basket more. That makes him even more of a mismatch when he checks into the game as a '4,' alongside guard combinations of Bullock, McDonald, senior Dexter Strickland and freshman Marcus Paige.

Hairston said a lot of opposing power forwards might underestimate him, because at 220 pounds and in the best condition of his college career, “I’m a lot stronger than other guards, and I can take advantage by taking them off the dribble; then they’ll probably play off of me and then I can shoot [from long-distance]. There are different things you can do at that position … and I’m trying to take advantage of them.”

Hairston, who struggled with both his confidence and shot the second half of last season, said he’s been pleased with his improvements so far. Health has been a factor; besides his sprained knee (which he said is feeling better), he said he played with a 100-degree temperature during the Tar Heels’ season-opener against Gardner-Webb.

“I’ve worked on a lot of things [like] finishing at the basket, defense, and I know I can still do a lot more,’’ he said.

And he might need to. Hairston said the Tar Heels have been practicing their small four-guard lineup a lot more. Which means he'll have to continue to play big.