One game and thirty practices into the 2013-14 season, Roy Williams still isn't exactly sure what type of team he might have.
Some of that is due to roster issues. Thursday, he announced P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald will not play against Holy Cross. That decimates Carolina's guard depth, leaving Luke Davis as the only guard substitute, meaning Williams has to juggle Davis, Nate Britt and Marcus Paige to have fresh players in the backcourt.
The situation is a little unusual because Williams still sees Hairston and McDonald every day in practice. So while the rest of the world still isn't sure what the 2014 Tar Heels would look like with Hairston on the wing catching passes from Britt or McDonald feeding James Michael McAdoo in the post, Williams knows exactly how good his team could be. "By far," the head coach said Thursday, "the most impressive player in practice is P.J. Hairston. It's not even close."
But as the Tar Heels prepare for their second game without the duo--they'll tip off against Holy Cross on Friday night at 8 p.m., and tickets are available--Williams has started to tailor practice to fit the lineups and rotation he is able to use in the games. Although Hairston, at least, would certainly be a starter if he was available, he's spent more time with the blue (reserve) team in practice lately.
"We have to go with the lineup we know we can use the next day (in games)," Paige said. "We have seen more lineups with them on the blue team. Coach is still mixing them in with the white group and keeping them part of the team."
So Carolina still has some major personnel questions to answer. But there's also the small matter of the players who will actually take the floor against the Crusaders establishing an identity. To this point, the 2014 Tar Heels have been defined more by the players not on the floor. Soon--especially given the rigorous schedule ahead in the next few weeks--it won't be enough to talk about who isn't available.
For example: did you walk away from last Friday's win over Oakland ebullient over the first half performance (74 percent shooting, 17 assists on 23 field goals, nine turnovers forced)? Or did you leave the Smith Center concerned about a second half performance that saw the Tar Heels commit 11 turnovers and allow the Golden Grizzlies to shoot 53.8% from the field?
If you're not sure, you have good company--Roy Williams feels the same way.
"In the first half, we played better than we have any day at practice," the head coach said. "And we played as poorly in the second half as we have at any practice. Probably somewhere in between is the real team."
One of the fears without Hairston and McDonald is Carolina's susceptibility to zone defenses. After playing well against the Oakland zone early, the Tar Heels struggled against it in the second half, failing to make a single three-point shot and committing several unforced turnovers. In the 18:30 before Williams cleared the UNC bench, Oakland outscored Carolina 35-23.
"In the second half, human nature is that you don't have the same kind of motivation and concentration," Williams said. "Still, as a coach, you want to fight to make sure you can get that. In the first half, all the marginal passes went through and turned into layups. In the second half, the marginal passes turned into turnovers."
Paige, who qualifies as a veteran given the current makeup of the team, wasn't concerned.
"I'm not really worried about the lethargic second half we had," the point guard said.
No matter which Tar Heel team shows up, and bearing in mind that Oakland hit 6-of-10 three-pointers in the second half last week, they'll need to keep track of Holy Cruss guard Cullen Hamilton. He hoisted 13 three-pointers, hitting seven of them, in the Crusaders' double-overtime win over Sacred Heart this week.