Playing the 'what if' game with Heels

"What if...?" seems to be a big question from North Carolina fans this season, especially after beating then-No. 3 Louisville and then-No. 1 Michigan State. James Michael McAdoo even hinted at it Saturday after the win over UNCG.

What if P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were actually playing on this team? Would the Tar Heels be undefeated? Would they be ranked No. 1 on the strength of the two best wins any team has on its resume?

There’s no way to truly quantify what the absence of Hairston and McDonald has meant, but let’s try anyway.

I think it’s safe to say the Tar Heels would be making more perimeter shots. The duo accounted for nearly half (131) of the 272 3-pointers the team attempted last season. With Marcus Paige the principle 3-point shooter this season, the Heels’ makes from behind the arc have decreased by more than 50 percent.

UNC made 7.6 3-pointers per game last season, thanks in part to Hairston and McDonald. Without them, it’s down to just 2.9 makes per game this season, which ranks last among all 345 NCAA Division I schools.

Paige accounts for 87 percent of UNC's 3-pointers, making 20 of the team’s 23 shots, which is the highest in Division I by far. The rest of the Heels have combined to shoot 3-for-26 from 3-point range.

With fewer shooters, needless to say the Heels are making a lower percentage behind the arc compared to last season, too. Hairston and McDonald helped Carolina shoot 37.6 percent from 3-point range last year. That’s dipped to 29.9 percent this season, which would easily be the worst mark in school history if it continues. (The previous low for a season was 32.8 percent in 2010-11.)

And how’s this for historic: Being so limited from the perimeter, the Heels' percent of 3-point attempts this season mirrors the 1982-83 season when they played with an experimental arc. Just 14 percent of UNC’s shot attempts came from outside 30 years ago. This season they’ve attempted just 16 percent of their shots from 3-point range, compared to 31 percent of all field-goal attempts last season.

The overwhelming result of Hairston and McDonald’s absence has led to a renewed presence of Carolina’s post game. Forwards Brice Johnson and McAdoo are the team’s second- and third-leading scorers, both averaging slightly more than 13 points per game.

Freshman center Kennedy Meeks has established himself as a reliable post scorer off the bench, contributing 8.5 points per game.

“That’s big for our team when we have multiple players that can score inside,” Paige said. “It takes some pressure off our perimeter shooters. We don’t have to rely so much on me hitting a 3 or anything like that. So to keep getting them to produce the way they are is great for our team.”

Carolina has shot 47.8 percent from the floor, which is its highest mark since the 2009 national championship team shot 48 percent. That increase is due to the fact that the Heels have scored 45 percent of their points this season in the paint.

Their inside game will have to continue to compensate while playing the waiting game on Hairston and McDonald’s eligibility status. No "what ifs" about it.