North Carolina found its answer even before Friday’s announcement.
The discovery took place versus Louisville, at Michigan State and against Kentucky. The Tar Heels can still win big without P.J. Hairston.
Ultimately, knowing that question doesn't need to be asked anymore lessened the blow from the university’s decision not to seek Hairston’s reinstatement. The clouds of speculation that have hovered over Chapel Hill since July can move on now.
“It’s already affected our team from a mental standpoint,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “My team has been so resilient.”
They will have to show a bit more strength as center Joel James has a sprained right MCL and could be out up to two weeks. James was injured in the opening minute of Wednesday’s game against Texas. Williams was leaning toward starting sophomore Brice Johnson in his place.
Had Hairston played, he would have immediately been Carolina’s best offensive weapon; the Heels don’t have a player who can create off the dribble the way that he can or shoot from as deep a range as he has.
In his absence, Carolina has been essentially a team of talented role players. They've worked together in their wins because they don’t have the individual star power that can take over a game. As assistant coach C.B. McGrath alluded to last week, the Heels have also bought more into improving on defense.
That’s why there were no signs of a doomsday mood sweeping through the Dean Smith Center before Friday’s practice. The Tar Heels stopped depending on a triumphant return of their best player a long time ago.
“Finding out what the decision was, it’s kind of a relief, it’s kind of sad, too,” sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said.
It’s a relief because the Heels don’t have to wonder about lineups or roles changing. Marcus Paige will have to continue to be a scorer. James Michael McAdoo and Isaiah Hicks will have to continue to play small forward for some stretches. Freshman guard Nate Britt will continue to have to play major minutes regardless of whether Leslie McDonald supplants him in the starting rotation.
Partial relief came in the form of McDonald on Wednesday when he was cleared by the NCAA and reinstated after sitting out the first nine games while his eligibility issues were ironed out. Although Carolina lost to Texas 86-83 in his debut, he provided four 3-pointers, which ranked him second on the team.
“Having Leslie back out there on wing gave us some size, some shooting, stretched the floor -- what we've been missing this season,” Tokoto said. “Having him back, I feel like our team is much better this year now so definitely glad to have him back.”
It’s sad because the team saw what Hairston endured without the guarantee of gaining his eligibility back. Coach Roy Williams initially suspended him July 28 after a second traffic stop this summer. He did not allow Hairston to be on the media guide, did not allow him to be a team captain and forced him to do extra conditioning just to earn the right to practice.
Williams was near tears at several points during the news conference. He called it, “the lowest moment I’ve gone through in 26 years.”
“It’s what it is and we've got to move on,” Williams said. “But my care for that young man is never going to stop.”
As the investigation process dragged on, the Heels knew this outcome was a possibility even though they remained optimistic of his return.
So even while receiving news they didn't want to hear, there’s no reshaping goals or lowering of expectations. Hairston, who practiced with the Heels on Friday, said as much when he addressed the team.
“His message was we have to come together as a team, we can’t let it affect us,” Tokoto said. “We just have to keep rolling.”