LAHAINA-The storyline from Maui is going to be that Carolina didn't learn very much about itself on this trip. In a three-day event intended to provide the best window yet into the identity of the 2012-13 Tar Heels, Carolina outclassed undermanned Mississippi State, stumbled against Butler, and then won a glorified exhibition game against Chaminade on Wednesday, 112-70.
That's not exactly the formidable RPI-boosting lineup you envisioned when you first looked at the schedule.
But maybe we will remember this trip for something else: it was the time in P.J. Hairston's career when we realized he is not a shooter.
That might sound like an insult, but it's actually high praise. He's not just a shooter. Hairston did score on this trip. He put up 43 points in Maui, which trailed only Reggie Bullock's 51. Stretch it out to the Long Beach State game, and Hairston scored 57 points in 63 minutes, the best stretch of consistent scoring in his Carolina career. In his freshman season, he never had three straight double-digit scoring games, and he posted back-to-back 10+ point performances only twice.
But we all kind of suspected he could score, didn't we? You'd watched him in pregame warmups at the Smith Center, you knew his high school reputation, and you had to believe his 30.8% shooting as a freshman was the product of nothing more than a first-year player who needed to find a rhythm.
Even then, though, the suspicion was that he was just a sniper, someone who was going to stand around the three-point line and fire long jumpers, hopefully at a very high rate of proficiency. In Maui, he showed a more diverse offensive approach. On one drive against Mississippi State, he used his left hand to score in the lane. For the three-game event, he took eight free throws, converting seven-significant because Carolina has not been a great free throw shooting team, and needs its best shooter from the line (yes, that's Hairston) to get there as much as possible. Hairston's eight attempts trailed only the nine from Dexter Strickland, but the senior made just four of them.
"It keeps the defense off balance when they have to respect that you can do some different things," Hairston said. "I want them to have to play me as more than a three-point shooter."
Despite all the scoring success, though, it turns out that Hairston is also capable of doing something other than putting the ball in the basket. He had 12 rebounds in Maui (tied with Bullock for the best among the Tar Heel wings and perimeter players), with five assists and just one turnover. He created a Chaminade turnover when he forced a held ball. He passed up an open look at a three-pointer to find Luke Davis, who had an even more open look. When Jackson Simmons worked hard to establish good post position in the second half, Hairston rewarded him with a nice lead entry pass that led to an easy hoop.
Even on the plays when he didn't necessarily get credit on the stat sheet, he still made an impact-midway through the second half, he helped the Tar Heels secure an offensive rebound by tipping the ball to keep it alive.
In some ways, he's making similar progress to what Bullock showed as a sophomore-doing some of the smaller things that will endear him to the coaching staff and eventually earn him more than the 15.7 minutes per game he's received through the first six contests. Remember, even Bullock wasn't getting Bullock-esque minutes early last season. If Hairston continues to make the all-around contributions he made in Maui, and can perform as consistently as he did on the island, he will be on the floor more frequently.
And yes, the head coach has noticed. "I think we found out that going small sometimes might be one of our better lineups," Williams said after the win over the Silverswords. "Particularly on the offensive end of the court. We played P.J. today as a four."
Maybe, here in Maui, we learned that Hairston is a four. He's earned the right to be called something other than just a shooter.