North Carolina's 83-80 loss to Belmont on Sunday was the program's worst loss since College of Charleston took down the storied school in January of 2010. That UNC team was ranked ninth in the nation at the time, but finished the season playing in the NIT. Expectations were high in that season, but the true talent level was that of a premier program rebuilding. This season's squad brought back a core of talent that should compete for a National Championship.
P.J. Hairston burst on the scene last season, leading UNC in scoring with 14.6 points per game. The talented shoot-first guard was a perfect complement to the all-around game of North Carolina's star forward, James Michael McAdoo. But in July, Hairston was suspended indefinitely for a multiple traffic violations in a vehicle tied to a convicted felon.
Leslie McDonald was supposed to replace the graduated Dexter Strickland as the lock-down perimeter defender for Roy Williams. Instead the 6'5 senior guard joins Hairston on the sidelines, suspended because of an NCAA investigation as to whether McDonald was improperly used as a spokesperson for a mouthguard company. Both McDonald and Hairston were expected to return at some point this season, but the chances get slimmer with each passing week.
In their stead, Roy Williams has had to rely heavily on McAdoo and Marcus Paige. So far this season, the pair are averaging exactly half of North Carolina's points on the season. This appears unsustainable when UNC heads to conference play, as teams with deeper rosters will be able to drive the ball away from Paige and McAdoo.
As a freshman, Paige saw most of his time at point guard, scoring over eight points per game and averaging four assists. The sophomore from Iowa has stepped up his game on the offensive end this season, shooting over 48 percent and averaging 18 points per game. But it's the depth in the backcourt that has people concerned about North Carolina's chances.
Freshman Nate Britt and little-used junior Luke Davis are averaging 24 and 20 minutes per game, respectively. Britt hasn't proven that he has the ability or the desire to score at all, making three of his eleven shots through four games. Davis entered the season with eight total points in his one season in Chapel Hill. A Carolina backcourt at full strength has Britt in a developmental role as a distributor and Davis doing mop-up duty against the kinds of schools that have been a challenge for the Tar Heels on a weekly basis.
Imagine Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, it his first season in the ACC, daring Britt to shoot over the 2-3 zone in the second half of a game in the Carrier Dome.
It may seem silly to say that a 3-1 program is "struggling", but UNC hasn't looked like a team that can make a Final Four run without Hairston and McDonald. A 12-point win against Holy Cross isn't going to silence any doubters.