NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22 issue of CAROLINA: The Magazine.
by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL - They really should be playing games by now. Twenty-four days into practice last year, North Carolina's men's basketball team had already won one exhibition and was less than a week away from its season opener. Same thing in in 2011. And the year before that.
Yet thanks to a new NCAA rule that had basketball teams reporting for practice two weeks earlier than normal, the Tar Heels still haven't even staged their annual Late Night With Roy skit-fest and Blue-White game yet (it is slated for Friday). The Tar Heels' exhibition against UNC Pembroke is still nine days away. And the regular season tipoff, against Oakland, is another seven days after that.
Not that anyone's counting. Really.
"It is a little weird, starting this early...I think the closer we get to Late Night, the more everyone will be itching to really start playing,'' said junior guard Luke Davis. "But there have been a lot of good things about getting an earlier start."
For one-probably the most important one-the change allows teams to spread out instruction beginning up to 42 days before their first regular-season game. Squads now get 30 practice days, but also 12 days off. The rationale, according to the NCAA news release in May:
"The rule creates a flexible preseason practice schedule that allows practice days and off days instead of the current schedule that leads to practice occurring every possible day. The more flexible approach provides coaches with the ability to determine how to use practice opportunities."
And with regular-season tip-offs creeping closer and closer to the beginning of November in recent years, that flexibility is important-especially to teams, like Carolina, that have strong expectations but plenty of question marks. "One of the things we're trying to do early is work this freelance stuff early, to play with two point guards at once, to play with three big guys at once," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said the day before practice began. "We're going to include more freelance earlier this year than we ever have and focus on it even more, because as of this moment, I don't know who we'll have the first game, second game, third game."
The uncertainty comes primarily from the status of junior P.J. Hairston, who is practicing with the team but is unsure how many games he will miss after a summer of legal problems. The Tar Heels' leading scorer last season, Hairston was key to the team's late-season resurgence, when Williams opted to go small by inserting the sharpshooter as the starting '4' (power forward).
With the departure of first-round draft pick Reggie Bullock and starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland, it was thought that Hairston would return to his more natural guard/wing slot this fall. But if he's not there from the get-go, it creates even more of a jumble. The Tar Heels could go downright tiny, with 5-11 freshman point guard Nate Britt joining 6-1 sophomore point guard Marcus Paige in the backcourt.
Or with a plethora of young (if unproven) big men, they could go jumbo, using combinations of James Michael McAdoo, Kennedy Meeks, Jackson Simmons, Desmond Hubert, Joel James, Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks at the small forward, power forward and center positions. "We could see three guys 6-8 or better [in the lineup], or we could see two guys I look eyeball to eyeball with," Williams said. "That's something we'll have to figure out."
Which is where that extra early practice time helps. From the beginning, Williams said his would be a "haphazard" preseason schedule-"practice a couple days, take a couple days off. Practice three days, take three days off." For the first time in his career, he even planned a golf trip after official workouts began. (The early-October beach getaway was scheduled, with multiple other couples, before the rule change.)
The benefit of it all, Simmons pointed out, is getting more time to practice with and teach the freshmen-and to recuperate after some of the more stringent workouts. "We have plenty of time to get ready, to get into a better mode earlier in the regular season,'' he said.
McAdoo, who suffered from back problems during the second half of his sophomore season but said he was 100 percent entering this preseason, was also hoping the longer build-up and increased rest between early practices would strengthen the team's health.
And then there's the competitive angle: Even Friday's Blue-White scrimmage is expected to be more serious than usual because the team has practiced together longer than usual-and is itching to play in front of a crowd. "That," Davis said last week, "is going to be fun."
Because of the rule change, Williams said the number of UNC's preseason practices will increase from 21 or 22 last year to 29 this season. He has expressed concern that the earlier start with make the season too long, but he also hopes the extra practice time will create a smarter, more focused, cohesive, more faceted team.
But only time - and maybe, finally, a game or three - will tell. "It's new to us," Williams said of the early start date. " . . . And we're going to try it, [and]see what it looks like when we get finished."