After switch to small ball, North Carolina's late-season surge provides optimism for 2013-14
North Carolina reversed course from its early struggles only after coach Roy Williams made a midseason strategic shift. Whether the Hall of Fame coach stays with it will depend largely on who returns for the Tar Heels next season.
North Carolina (25-11) closed Williams' 10th season at his alma mater with Sunday's loss to Kansas in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels only made it that far after Williams switched from his post-centric offense to a four-guard lineup that spread the floor and shot lots of 3-pointers.
Before the move, the Tar Heels were a team with lopsided losses to Indiana, Texas and Miami to go with an 0-2 start in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Afterward, they won nine of 13 to close the season — the only losses were to high NCAA seeds Duke, Miami and Kansas — and reached the ACC tournament final.
"I really enjoyed coaching my team. I really did," Williams said after Sunday's loss to the Jayhawks in Kansas City, Mo. "We had some tough, tough losses early. They kept coming to practice every single day and tried to do what we wanted them to do."
The Tar Heels started the year with the challenge of replacing four NBA first-round draft picks from a team that had reached two straight NCAA regional finals. They reached as high as No. 9 nationally before an early loss to Butler in which they fell behind by 29 points — the first sign that this year's group filled with young and unproven big men would need time to grow.
The promotion of sophomore guard P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup sparked UNC's late-season surge along with the improvement of freshman point guard Marcus Paige. Still, North Carolina beat only one NCAA-bound team — rival North Carolina State — during its late run before topping Villanova in its NCAA opener.
"It was certainly a roller-coaster ride for me as a point guard trying to learn everything," Paige told reporters in the locker room after Sunday's loss. "... We made some real big strides through the ACC tournament and even here for the majority of the way we played in the NCAA tournament. I'm pretty proud but at the same time — I'm not the only one — we're going to be pretty hungry to get better."
The Tar Heels are only guaranteed to lose one starter, senior guard Dexter Strickland. Sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo had an up-and-down year in trying to become UNC's go-to player and will again have to decide whether to enter the NBA draft or return to school.
McAdoo, a 6-foot-9 forward, was second on the team in scoring (14.4 points) to go with a team-high 7.3 rebounds. But he shot just 45 percent, including a 5-for-19 performance against the Jayhawks.
Instead, it was Hairston who grew into UNC's top player. He averaged a team-high 18.2 points after becoming a full-time starter and shot 40 percent from 3-point range.
Assuming Hairston and junior guard Reggie Bullock don't flirt with the draft, the Tar Heels will return two elite outside shooters along with key reserve Leslie McDonald — which could lead Williams to stay with the small-ball attack.
Regardless, incoming freshmen Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks should provide a boost to the frontcourt that struggled to find steady production behind freshmen Brice Johnson and Joel James, and sophomore Desmond Hubert.
As for Williams, the 62-year-old coach had a cancer scare just before the start of preseason practice but went on to earn his 700th career victory against Villanova and reach 25 wins for the seventh time in 10 years at UNC.
"We have a chance to be a sensational basketball team again," he said, "but that's not going to help me get through the spring."