UNC wings ready for their shot

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Carolina’s guards have become known for their good-natured shooting contests.

If sophomore P.J. Hairston can make a shot from half-court (backwards, which he has), redshirt junior Leslie McDonald wants to try to swish one from at least two feet farther back. If junior Reggie Bullock can make a trick shot while sitting on a table behind the basket, then surely senior Dexter Strickland wants to try it, too.

The bragging rights competitions are all in good fun. But this season, with such an overflow of experienced wings on their roster, the Tar Heels are hoping some of that outside shooting prowess carries over to games.

“I think it’s going to be a big year for our wing players,” said Bullock, the only remaining starter from the team that lost to Kansas in last year’s NCAA regional finals. “... This year it’s going to be up to the wings to be able to step up and knock down shots, because we don’t have that powerful interior that we had.”

With four starters gone from last season’s team -- including the frontcourt of ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller and ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson -- UNC’s most experienced players perform mostly outside the lane.

Strickland, a senior, was last year’s starting shooting guard, backup point guard and top perimeter defender until he tore his ACL in January; he’s practicing, and at about 85-90 percent. Bullock replaced him in the starting lineup and barely missed a beat on defense. He also added more of an offensive threat, shooting a team-leading 38.2 percent from 3-point range.

Hairston struggled with his shot the second part of the season, but showed early-on he knows how to swish when he’s confident. McDonald returns after redshirting last season because of a torn ACL; he was UNC’s top perimeter threat before he got hurt during the 2011 offseason.

Plus, the Tar Heels add freshman J.P. Tokoto, who teammates have called one of the most athletic guards they’ve ever seen; and rookie Marcus Paige, who is expected to start at point guard.

“We have a lot of guys who can knock down the 3-ball, and we’re counting on that,’’ said sophomore James Michael McAdoo, UNC’s most experienced returning post player. “But hopefully that comes from us [forwards] kicking it out.”

Indeed, McAdoo and Bullock said UNC won’t be changing its inside-out offensive philosophy, but the Tar Heels will need more from the “out.”

In 2010-11, UNC made only 32.8 percent of its 3-pointers, the worst outside-shooting season in school history. Last season, that percentage rose only slightly, to 33.5.

Bullock knows the numbers, and seems confident they are about to jump.

“I’m willing to step up to the challenge,’’ he said. “We’ve definitely been winning off point guards and post men the last four to five years, with all the great players that came through: Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, those type of players.

“Players like [wings] Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, people didn’t think about them as much. But when their time came, Wayne Ellington stepped up, Danny Green stepped up. So I believe it will be time for our shooting guards to step up this year.”

Just like during those competitive trick-shot intrateam competitions, where anything -- three-quarters-court-sideways-with-one-eye-closed, anyone? -- is possible.

“If we see somebody making it easy from halfcourt, we should be able to believe that they can make it easy from the 3-point line,” Bullock said. “So I think it’s definitely a confidence booster for us in that we can shoot from anywhere on the court.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.