Through two games, Carolina's adjustment to a starting lineup that features P.J. Hairston has been mostly about firepower, culminating with a 93-point explosion against stingy Virginia.
Starting tonight in Atlanta, however, the Tar Heels will have to prove they can play physically even with the smaller lineup. Expect rebounding to be one of the key themes in tonight's 9 p.m. tip against Georgia Tech. Jackets head coach Brian Gregory is a Tom Izzo disciple, which means rebounding forms one of the cornerstones of his program.
Under the second-year head coach, Tech is just 4-16 when it loses the rebounding battle. The Jackets were outrebounded in each of their first three ACC games, but have been outrebounded just twice in their last nine league outings.
That means Hairston's rebounding totals might be nearly as important as his scoring figures tonight. Since moving into the starting lineup, he's rebounded very well, grabbing 15 rebounds over the past two games, the second-best figure on the team (James Michael McAdoo has 18 in the same span) and the best two-game stretch for any Carolina starter at power forward this season.
In that sense, he's answered a very direct challenge from Roy Williams.
"One time, James Michael shot the ball from the baseline, and we had nobody go to the board," the head coach said after the win over the Cavaliers. "I said, 'You small guys who like the small lineup, I can't do that if you don't get to the board.'...The rebounding part is the most crucial part of the game. Two games in a row, P.J. has done a big-time job for us on the backboards."
He's just 6-5 ½, but Hairston has shown a consistent knack for finding the ball around the rim, especially on the offensive end, where he's grabbed nine offensive rebounds in his two games as a starter.
He also pays attention to his coach's threats. Both of Hairston's offensive rebounds against Virginia came off shots by McAdoo, and both the offensive rebounds turned into points for the Tar Heels.
"With us being big guards, we have the advantage to box out a smaller defender," Hairston said. "At the '4,' I have to be strong enough to box out a bigger guy than me and chase after the ball every time I can."
He'll get the opportunity to prove he can do it over the next two games. Georgia Tech pairs 6-11 ½ center Daniel Miller with 6-8 Robert Carter Jr. in their starting frontcourt. Carter actually leads the Jackets in rebounding, so if Hairston should draw that assignment, he'll not only have to use his quickness to get around the 245-pound freshman, he'll also have to keep Carter--who ranks 11th in the league in rebounding--off the offensive boards.
The challenge only increases in Carolina's next game, as NC State brings Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie--two of the conference's top nine rebounders--into Chapel Hill. The last time the Tar Heels and Wolfpack met, State outrebounded Carolina 42-32, the biggest rebounding deficit a Roy Williams-coached team has had in an ACC game since Feb. 12, 2011, in a narrow win at Clemson.
Hairston's most important line in the box score this week, then, might come in the rebounding column rather than the scoring column. But his head coach, perhaps picturing the beefy Carter trying to follow Hairston around the perimeter, hopes the matchup could be problematic on both ends.
"It causes us problems, but hopefully it causes them problems as well," Williams said Monday. "I think you've got to go with what you feel more comfortable with at that time. Over 40 minutes, it's hard for P.J. to guard a 6-8 or 6-9 guy. We understand that part. But it also might be hard for them to guard him."