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Lineup still not set for men's basketball opener

The North Carolina men’s basketball season starts at 7 p.m. tonight.

But as of 2 p.m. Thursday, coach Roy Williams hadn’t set his starting lineup.

“As we stand here right now, I still do not know who I’m going to start,” Williams said at a press conference in the Smith Center Thursday.

“The staff talked about it at the staff meeting this morning. It’s been really interesting … I’m waiting for somebody to step up and say, ‘I’m going to deserve that.’”

Williams admitted that uncertainty this close to the start of the season is unusual for him, but that doesn’t have him concerned.

He’s confident in his freshman point guard Marcus Paige. He’s confident in his returners Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo.

Those four, he’s sure about — it’s the other post spot he’s not so sure about.

In North Carolina’s 81-54 exhibition win against Shaw, Williams started 6-foot-10 sophomore Desmond Hubert in the other post position.

But freshman Joel James played more minutes than Hubert, and despite a one-for-six showing at the free throw line, James outscored Hubert 13 to two.

In fact, James had the second most points of any Tar Heel in the exhibition game and added a block and seven rebounds.

Regardless of who gets the starting nod against Gardner-Webb, there will be plenty of playing time to go around. Williams said that he hasn’t ruled out making a change to the starting lineup as the nonconference schedule plays out.

In practice, Williams has been trying out several different lineups.

“There’s so many combinations,” said Leslie McDonald, who also had no idea who will start tonight.

“Coach has been putting people in these spots … It varies in practice. We’ll see the starting line (Friday).”

Williams mentioned that his smaller lineups will include either P.J. Hairston or freshman J.P. Tokoto at the four spot, but not Bullock.

With so many new players filling important roles for the Tar Heels, this opening weekend of the season is filled with crucial learning opportunities.

“The young kids have to understand that everybody we’re playing is pretty doggone good,” Williams said. “In the old days, Coach Smith used to talk about, they give scholarships, too.

“Being ready and being prepared every single day, regardless of who you play, is something that is extremely important for young guys to understand.”

McDonald, a redshirt junior, and the lone senior Strickland have offered their advice to the Tar Heels, who will be making their regular season debuts against the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

“I told them, ‘Be prepared,’” McDonald said. “‘Being nervous is the norm. I get nervous before every game, and I’m a senior. What you do, don’t let that overcome you and continue to do what the coach says.

“‘And play your heart out.’”

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If James and fellow freshmen Tokoto and Brice Johnson heed that advice, they’ll make Williams’ roster decisions even more difficult.

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.