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UNC Basketball: What if PJ Hairston had played in the 2013-14 season?

Let’s revisit one of the biggest what ifs of the last 10 years for the Tar Heels.

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Villanova v North Carolina Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The years between the 2011-12 North Carolina Tar Heel team and the 2015-16 season are some of the more forgettable years of the Roy Williams era. Not because the Tar Heels were bad during the three seasons, but instead because there weren’t many memorable postseason moments in that stretch. North Carolina was bounced in the second round of the tournament two of the years, and made the Sweet 16 the last year of the three-year run.

The 2013-14 team was the lowest ranked team of the three-year stretch, coming in at 12th in the pre-season poll. Despite coming into the season ranked that high, there was a significant amount of uncertainty around that team. Reggie Bullock declared for the NBA Draft, while Dexter Strickland graduated. The back court duties were left in the hands of Marcus Paige, freshman Nate Britt, senior Leslie McDonald and junior PJ Hairston.

Things looked good for the backcourt until both McDonald and Hairston were both suspended due to eligibility concerns, which left the Tar Heels with two scholarship guards. While McDonald was later cleared to play, Hairston was forced to sit out the entire year, which led to him leaving the program on December 20th, 2013 and declaring for the NBA Draft.

While the University never made an official statement on what Hairston did that got him suspended, Coach Williams’ statement on the issue was pretty clear that he had committed an infraction. Regardless of what got him kicked off the team, the loss of the junior guard was devastating to the Tar Heels’ chances of making a real run in 2013-14.

That team was one of the worst three-point shooting teams in program history. There were only two players on the roster that made 10+ threes in the season, Paige and McDonald. In comparison, during the miserable 2019-2020 season, there were six different players who made ten threes. The game has changed some, but that just shows how bad that team needed another sharpshooter, or even just a decent shooter. Hairston would have been that.

During his sophomore season, Hairston knockdown 39.6% of his three-point attempts, totaling 89 over the entire season. He averaged 14.6 points in 24 minutes per game, and even cracked the starting lineup midseason, something that is tough to do under Roy Williams. In the final 13 games of the year, he started them all and averaged 18 points on 40% shooting from three. His most impressive game came against Miami in the ACC Tournament, where he scored 28 points and almost led the Tar Heels to a win over 9th-ranked Miami in the ACC title game.

Hairston would have brought something the 2013-14 team very much lacked: Elite three-point shooting and all-around scoring ability. In his only “game” of the season, Hairston scored 20 points in the 20-minute Late Night with Roy blue-white scrimmage.

That Tar Heel team was pretty stout in the front court. James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks played significant minutes in the post, while Isaiah Hicks got some minutes too. Marcus Paige had his breakout season at point guard, while McDonald and JP Tokoto gave valuable wing minutes.

They finished with a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Iowa State in heartbreaking fashion in the second round, but one can't help but think that Hairston could have changed that team’s fortunes. There was no dominant team that year, similar to this past season. The National Championship was won by seven-seeded UConn over eight-seeded Kentucky.

I’m not saying Hairston would have made the Tar Heels a national championship favorite, but they would have been much better than the six-seed they ended up as.

Despite some mistakes Hairston has made, some during his time at UNC, and some after, he is one of the more overlooked players in the last twenty years. North Carolina fans were robbed of seeing what he was going to become in a more featured role as a junior. And now we are left wondering what could have been.