Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
As this point, I am convinced Roy Williams is simply trolling the Tar Heel fan base.
It wouldn't be a UNC basketball season if we didn't have an ongoing debate about some player starting when every fan thinks it should be someone else. This season that is happening at a couple of positions but most intensely with P.J. Hairston being the preferred option over Dexter Strickland.
According to Inside Carolina, there is no plan to change the starters which is just fine with Hairston.
Roy Williams was asked during his weekly radio show on Monday if Hairston had earned his trust enough to move into the starting lineup, and his response elicited an eruption of criticism across social media and message boards.
"Right now, I think he’s more valuable coming off the bench," the 10th-year UNC head coach said.
Williams noted that things could change based on practice performance before adding: "P.J. has really given us a lift and when he comes into the game, the other team's defense has to change. And I like that part too."
InsideCarolina.com asked Hairston about his coach’s comments on Tuesday. While anyone would expect most, if not all, college basketball players to respond to such a question in a nonflammable manner, there was no hesitation in Hairston’s reply, no hint of an underlying thought that differed from his spoken word.
"Starting doesn’t bother me at all," he said. "I actually get a good look at what the other team is doing when I’m sitting on the bench. Knowing that I’m the first or second guy off the bench, it really doesn’t bother me.
"I’m just proud to be playing, for one. But coming off the bench and being a basketball player, being a smart basketball player, you have to watch what the other team is doing, how they’re guarding us, are they double-teaming the big man and things like that, so that when I check in I know what to do."
If this situation looks vaguely familiar it is a basic repeat of the 2008 season where Marcus Ginyard would start at wing forward and Danny Green would come rolling into the game, hit some three pointers and cause everyone to wonder why he wasn't the starter. The great "what-if" of the 2009 season is what would have happened had Ginyard been healthy? Green would have still come off the bench but there are some compelling arguments that the 2009 team ended up being as good as it was because Green started.
The same dilemma is present again with Strickland and Hairston. There is some clamoring among fans and even I suggested it last week, that UNC needs to play the better offensive lineup and that includes Hairston and Reggie Bullock on the wings. Against FSU, the starting lineups did not change however there was a fair amount of the Hairston/Bullock wing combo on the floor and it proved productive.
So why doesn't Williams change the starting lineup to put these two together? Because, like with the Ginyard situation, Williams prefers more defensive-minded players to start the game and then likes to bring an offensive threat off the bench. This was true in 2005 with Jackie Manuel, in 2008 with Ginyard, even last year with Strickland over Bullock. The same is true here and there is merit to the argument with one caveat. Ginyard and even Strickland last season was a better offensive option than Strickland now. There is a significant hit offensively with Strickland on the court without 2-3 good/great options to compensate for his lack of production. However Strickland is still a good on-the-ball defender even if he hasn't return to his pre-ACL tear form. There is something to be said for getting an opposing shooter off his game at the start rather than letting him get a feel earlier. Hairston, for his part, seems unconcerned about it since he says he gets a feel from the game starting the game on the bench. That means he can come in, provide an offensive boost and force the opposing team to adjust.
Besides that, there is probably too much made of who starts and not enough acknowledgement of who is on the court when the game is truly decided. On Saturday, Hairston played 28 minutes while Strickland played 25. Hairston did not enter the game until 4.5 minutes were gone in the first half which means the final 35 minutes of the game he played 28 of them. Since he scored 23 points and was a huge reason why UNC won, the fact he doesn't start is moot. In fact the greater concern about Hairston's minutes comes when Leslie McDonald returns. McDonald playing could hurt Hairston's minutes unless Williams opts for the smaller lineup with Hairston at the four.
Whatever the case, the FSU game revealed that UNC needs as much Hairston and Bullock on the floor as possible. If that means a small lineup, so be it. If that means less playing time for Strickland and McDonald, then that's probably what should happen. However, whether Hairston starts or not is largely inconsequential. As long as he is in the game and hitting shots when the game matters most, UNC should be fine.