NCAA BK

Hairston suspension could hurt Heels

North Carolina Tar Heels guard P.J. Hairston
P.J. Hairston was UNC's leading scorer last season.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ask a college basketball coach about all the conference realignment in recent years and they just shake their heads: It’s a shame, they say, the big-money sport of football has so drastically changed the fate of the less-money sport of basketball. Football drives the bus, basketball is along for the ride. In realignment, the sport of basketball lost.

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This feeling is true in every conference except the ACC, whose impressive basketball stature grew by a few more leaps and bounds in the latest rounds of realignment. The ACC has a legitimate shot of becoming the best basketball conference in history with the addition this season of blueblood Syracuse and perennial top-25 teams Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, and then the addition next season of the current reigning national champion Louisville. It’s a conference with the most revered coaching personalities in the sport (Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino and Roy Williams). If Miami can build on last season’s surprise, if Virginia makes the expected jump next season, if Mark Gottfried continues to land top-15 recruiting classes at North Carolina State, this could be the conference that for the foreseeable future sends more teams to the NCAA tournament than any other.

So what, exactly, does this have to do with P.J. Hairston – the North Carolina junior guard who led the team in scoring last season and in headaches this offseason – getting suspended indefinitely from the team after being charged Sunday with speeding and reckless and careless driving for going 93 mph in a 65?

Let me explain.

For Roy Williams, the stakes have never been higher at one of college basketball’s most storied programs. The ACC’s always been Carolina, Duke, then everyone else. Now, though, there’s a logjam of talented players and ascendant programs at the top of the ACC.

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And after a season where Carolina basketball seemed decent but never great, two key players – Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland – left for the NBA, an even bigger share of the burden will fall to Hairston.

How did he respond during the offseason before the ACC adds three teams and becomes an even more formidable conference?

By getting cited for speeding in May. Then by getting arrested for marijuana possession and driving without a license in June (a gun was recovered near the vehicle). Then by getting cited for driving nearly 100 miles per hour in July, forcing Williams to suspend him indefinitely.

It should be noted that charges against Hairston were dropped in the June incident. It should also be noted – and you better believe it will be, by eagle-eyed NCAA investigators – that the car Hairston was driving in June was rented by a convicted felon, according to reports. While we’re at it, let’s note that all of this comes in the wake of an academic fraud scandal at UNC involving student-athletes.

Williams took the first step toward making things right by suspending Hairston indefinitely shortly after Sunday’s incident. Hopefully, Hairston will take the next step by getting his life back on track.

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The next step then becomes: What about North Carolina basketball?

Last season wasn’t what we expect from Chapel Hill. There was a November loss to Butler (excusable), then a November beatdown at top-ranked Indiana (fair enough), then a December 18-point loss on the road against a dysfunctional Texas team (panic setting in), then six more losses in conference play (what happened to that winning brand of Carolina basketball?), then a season-saving decision by Williams to go to a four-guard lineup (another example of why he’s a Hall of Famer). In the end the Tar Heels' season looked like this: a 25-11 record, an eight-seed in the NCAA tournament, a first-weekend exit – not a bad season by normal standards, but not a season that goes over particularly well in Chapel Hill.

It would be difficult to imagine what this year’s Carolina team looks like without Hairston. James Michael McAdoo was assumed to be the leader of last year’s team, a possible NBA lottery talent, but he struggled in the role of being The Guy. Hairston, however, thrived down the stretch in the gunner role, averaging 18.2 points the last 13 games of the season. With Strickland and Bullock gone, even more of that scoring burden would go to Hairston this year, even with point guard Marcus Paige having a year of experience under his belt and two highly recruited freshman big men, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, getting playing time.

We don’t know yet if this will end up being a suspension of a few games, or a suspension until conference play begins, or Hairston getting kicked off the team. Whatever it is, it’s not good news in Chapel Hill. The question is whether these are one- or two-year hiccups – or something more lasting. This is a team that, despite salvaging last season through Williams’ coaching, seems to be trending in the wrong direction. That’s made even worse as the rest of the ACC seems to be trending in the right direction.

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But remember: This is college basketball. There is no sport in America where the power structure is so volatile. One great recruiting class can turn a program’s direction from falling off a cliff to being ranked in the preseason top 10. This is a sport in which the 2012 national champion became a 2013 NIT first-round loser – and will again become the No. 1 team in the nation in this preseason as one of the most talented recruiting classes of all time heads to Lexington, Ky.

So don’t panic just yet, Carolina fans. The half-life of both struggles and success can be shorter in college basketball than any other sport. Don’t panic if you look at this year’s recruiting class – ranked 16th in the nation by ESPN.com, behind such non-powers as LSU, Brigham Young and Illinois. Don’t shiver when you look at a nonconference slate that includes Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky in the first month, when you very well could be without Hairston.

Look for the silver lining in your Carolina blues. And right now the silver lining seems to be in 2014-15, where three of the nation’s top 14 recruits have already signed up to become Tar Heels, meaning a brighter future might be not all that far off.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: North Carolina

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