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UNC 82, BC 70: Hairston Out With Concussion, But Should He Return a Starter?

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If Carolina's victory in Chestnut Hill reinforced anything for Tar Heel fans--besides this team's penchant for second-half mediocrity -- it's that P. J. Hairston has unquestionably become one of our most valuable players. After the Heels spent the first four minutes Tuesday night going 1-for-7 from the field and falling in an 8-2 hole, Hairston entered and spent the next four minutes knocking down a perfect 4-for-4 from three-point range, assisting on a Bullock three and a Hubert layup, and almost single-handedly giving the Heels a 9-point lead that would never fall below 6 for the remainder of the game. By the time he exited the floor with a concussion at the 4:02 mark, the Heels had ammassed a 38-26 lead, spurred by Hairston's 14 points over a 12-minute span.

As impressive as that performance is, it's something we've come to expect from the sophomore, which raises the larger question: Should we also expect to see Hairston in the starting lineup when he returns? We batted it back and forth between our two Carolina guys here at Blue vs. Blue--I argue that PJ should stick to the bench, while Zeke thinks he ought to join the starting ranks.

With every loss the Heels pile up (and with every performance he puts in like the one he did Tuesday night), the calls for Hairston to start will grow louder and louder. Roy's intractability when it comes to coaching style and philosophy will come under increasing fire as well (perhaps deservedly so, in some areas), but his decision to keep Hairston coming off the bench can and should be defended for several reasons.

First of all, who should he replace?

Reggie Bullock? Bullock is the one player on this team that is consistently playing harder and better than - or at least as hard and as good as--Hairston. Bullock's the upperclassman and leader (as far as there is a leader) for this team. Not to mention, he's averaging more points, rebounds, assists, steals, and less turnovers per game, while shooting better percentages across the board (47.5% FG to Hairston's 41.3%, 44.9% to 38.4% 3FG, 86.2% to 82.0% FT).

Dexter Strickland? Strickland's meager offensive production may argue in favor of the switch, but this is not your typical Roy Williams offensive juggernaut this year, which makes Strickland's defensive proficiency all the more difficult to ignore. Removing Strickland from the starting lineup would not only bust up perhaps the best defensive wing duo in the ACC, it would also strand Paige by removing one of the league's best backcourt defenders (more on the defensive ramifications of a switch below). Furthermore, Strickland's the only senior on a very green team, which might not seem to mean much in practical terms until you look at his league-leading 2.8 assist/turnover ratio and consider the characteristic deficiency in young teams for valuing the basketball.

Put him in at the 4 and move McAdoo to 5? Roy's been pretty adamant that "going small" is a look he's more than willing to turn to during the course of the game, but not to start it. Depleting an already-weak front line this way doesn't make much sense, especially if it demands that McAdoo play a post-up game he's clearly not comfortable with. You're not only taking Hairston out of his comfort zone here, you're messing with McAdoo as well.

Secondly, while Hairston is undoubtedly one of our best players, it matters less who starts the game and more who actually ends up getting the minutes. Hairston's 20 mpg is good for fifth on the team (behind McAdoo, Bullock, Paige, and Strickland), so he's already getting starter's minutes as it is.

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, moving Hairston into the starting five would vacate one of Roy's most valued positions: the sixth man. Roy has long preferred a defensive-oriented first unit (which is why we've also seen Desmond Hubert consistently start), with an offensive arsenal on call to boost a lead or recover a deficit as needed. It's a role Hairston excels at, and it's a strategy that's worked remarkably well in years past.

I think of starting Jackie Manuel in 2005 with Marvin Williams coming off the bench as our fifth-leading scorer, when we easily could have started Felton, McCants, Jawad, Marvin, and May and have been great. Or bringing Danny Green off the bench for three years from 2006-08 behind the more defensive-minded David Noel, Reyshawn Terry, and Marcus Ginyard. Or even last year's plan (until McDonald and Strickland went down with injuries) to combine our onslaught of shooters (McDonald, Bullock, and Hairston) with McAdoo off the bench behind the defense of Strickland and Henson.

Roy prizes his offensive sixth man as much as any of his starting defenders. The scoring boost and energy infusion characteristic of the role suits Hairston's strengths perfectly (can you imagine being down six a getting excited at the sight of Dexter Strickland at the scorer's table?), and he provides the continuity of effort and toughness off the bench that Roy expects from all of his players. The sixth man has been a key ingredient to Roy's success over the years, and we are much better off with one of our much better players in that position.

I can agree with a lot of what Will is saying and don't doubt that Roy knows more about these things than I do. But from seeing the positive results of a starting lineup change in several recent years (remember Danny Green for Marcus Ginyard in 2009 and Kendall Marshall for Larry Drew II in 2011?) I'm inclined to think switching Hairston's role would have a similarly positive impact for UNC.

The biggest argument to me is that he seems to be an emotional leader for this team and sets the tone for this team to scrap and hustle their butts off every time he's on the floor. An energy guy is valuable off the bench, but when your starting lineup looks as flat as it does this year for Carolina, why not have him set that tone for the team from the outset? Reggie Bullock, Dex and James Michael McAdoo just don't seem like the type of guys to take control of a team and get them pumped up, and that's where Hairston is invaluable - even if his shot isn't falling, he's diving on the floor, clapping after every made bucket, going hard after rebounds, and generally being the type of player you root for and opponents openly despise.

The presence of Hubert and Strickland in the starting lineup is supposed to be for this same purpose - setting a defensive-minded tone early in the game. Unfortunately, UNC's been outscored 25-7 in the last couple of games before Hairston enters the game as a sub - if Carolina isn't performing well as a defensive unit, isn't it time to admit that Hubert and Strickland aren't really that valuable starting as defensive specialists?

Strickland especially I feel like has taken a big step backwards this year in his ability to shut guys down and is largely having the media refer to him as a defensive specialist based on past performance. Sorry Will, I think this is where we disagree - Dex's game has now changed from being a speed-only offensive player and shut-down perimeter defender to being a good defender and a relatively steady hand on offense. Doesn't that sound like somebody you want coming in to spell your freshman point guard?

My starting lineup would have Paige, Bullock, Hairston, McAdoo and Hubert so that you've got three relatively reliable scorers and two other guys who know their roles - then have my second unit be Strickland, Leslie McDonald, J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson and some combination of Joel James and Jackson Simmons. That way you've got a talent-heavy first five and a steady, nice mix of experience and potential in your second string that I think could compliment each other well. And don't give me that PJ already plays "starter's minutes" - 20 mpg isn't enough for a guy whose PPG average is only going up and has the second-highest Offensive Rating on the team.

Roy, put that kid in the starting lineup already and watch it pay dividends. It's time to #freePJ !