For UNC, McDonald is better than nothing

Since the start of the season, really, and maybe a little before, Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston have typically been discussed as though they were a package deal.

Understandably so: Both perimeter-oriented UNC shooting guards were watching games from the sideline in casual dress for vague eligibility-related reasons. Both players were practicing but not playing. Save an explanation of NCAA enforcement, "Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston" worked. It was the easiest shorthand.

The partnership is now officially dissolved.

On Wednesday, the NCAA declared McDonald reinstated and eligible to play against Texas Wednesday night. It said nothing of Hairston, save that North Carolina had not even submitted a reinstatement request on his behalf. UNC will get the lesser of the two players back in the lineup immediately. Hairston's fate -- and the miniature circus that has accompanied him -- will continue to hang over the Tar Heels.

And even so, it's still great news for North Carolina.

On paper, McDonald's case sounds similar to his teammate's -- caught up, like Hairston, in a swirl of mouth guard brands, Durham holding companies and paper-trail relationships to convicted felon Hadyn "Fats" Thomas. In the end, the NCAA found McDonald accepted "the use of luxury cars, payment of parking tickets, a cellphone and lodging" during the spring and summer of 2013.

But his official penance -- a nine-game suspension and a forfeit (to charity) of about $1,800 -- was no more draconian than the one handed to Oregon's Ben Carter and Dominic Artis for selling their team-provided Nikes just months ago.

McDonald was, in other words, a fairly regular impermissible benefits case. Whatever Hairston's situation amounts to -- whatever it means for his future, or lack thereof, as a UNC Tar Heel -- it is not that.

In the meantime, North Carolina fans can focus on the upside: Their already very good team is immediately going to get better.

The "already very good" might be the biggest surprise of this entire North Carolina ordeal. The Tar Heels were supposed to be crippled by losing Hairston, last season's efficient and versatile leading scorer. Instead, they have knocked off two No. 1 teams (Louisville and Michigan State, the latter at the Breslin Center), handled Kentucky Saturday in Chapel Hill and remained rightfully ranked pretty much all season. They also peppered their upsets with losses to Belmont and UAB. Occasionally, they've been the most thrilling team in the country; they've always been the most confusing.

Little-used sophomore Brice Johnson has become a star; freshman center Kennedy Meeks isn't far behind; and point guard Marcus Paige has been smooth and commanding. The Tar Heels have played excellent defense -- they allow the seventh-fewest points in the country per possession -- they chase down offensive boards and they don't turn the ball over too often.

The one area where UNC has been out and out bad is perimeter shooting: The Tar Heels have made 25 3s all season; Paige accounts for 21 of them. Smartly, UNC shoots the single-lowest rate of 3s to field goal attempts in the country this season -- a whopping 15.9 percent. Credit the Tar Heels for not wasting possessions with shots they can't make, I suppose, but no one wants to be that one-dimensional on offense forever.

McDonald is an immediate panacea. For all of his struggles staying on the floor in what feels like one of those existentially long college basketball careers, McDonald has done one thing repeatedly and with success. That thing is "shooting the basketball." And unlike Hairston, McDonald won't return to a team that has carved its own identity in search of leading-scorer-type touches. He will be a spot-up shooter, a role player, but one whose chief skill is also his team's chief need.

It might not show up against Texas tonight. It might take a little time. But McDonald's return is an unequivocal positive for North Carolina.

Whether it's better or worse or just as good as a joint return with Hairston will have to remain a matter for would and could. He and McDonald are no longer twins in NCAA casual-clothes purgatory, no longer a package deal.

But at this point in UNC's ongoing saga of a season, the Tar Heels will happily take it. One out of two ain't bad.