KANSAS CITY — Marcus Paige imagined this day a year ago. He thought about what it might be like. He envisioned himself already there, the starting point guard at North Carolina, leading the Tar Heels into the NCAA tournament.
Paige then was a senior in high school in Marion, Iowa. Approaching the tournament, Kendall Marshall, who spent last season re-writing UNCs records for assists, informed Paige that hed likely be leaving school for the NBA. So while he watched the start of the NCAA tournament a year ago, Paige allowed his mind to wander.
It was going through my mind watching (Marshall), Paige said on Thursday. Like, hey, this could be me next year, getting a chance to go out there and lead the team as the point guard. So now to actually get a chance to do it is going to be cool.
This has been a season of firsts for Paige, the UNC freshman. First college game. First assist. Every significant experience has been new. Now comes another: his first NCAA tournament game. The Tar Heels, seeded eighth in the South Region, will play here Friday at the Sprint Center against No. 9 Villanova.
Paige said he has heard what people say about freshman point guards and the NCAA tournament that they dont mix, that the pressure is too great, the inexperience too much to overcome. Paige doesnt believe it.
It might be true, in general, but I think Ive been playing some of my best basketball last couple of games, he said. And our team has really hit its stride. So I dont really see that affecting me too much.
Entering the ACC tournament last week, Paige had played two of his worst games of the season. He committed 13 turnovers, combined, in UNCs final two games of the regular season.
During the ACC tournament, though, he was among the Tar Heels best players. He passed for a career-high 10 assists during UNCs victory against Florida State in the quarterfinals, then made a pair of clutch shots late in a victory against Maryland. In UNCs 87-77 loss against Miami in the championship game, he scored 17 points and had five assists.
I think Ive realized what I can do and what I cant do now, Paige said on Thursday inside the Tar Heels locker room. My confidence level, since the tournament time, has come around. My confidence level has shot up another level.
Roy Williams, the UNC coach, has been in this position plenty of times before reliant on a freshman point guard entering the NCAA tournament. Two years ago it was Marshall, who helped lead the Heels to the brink of the Final Four. In 2007, Ty Lawson did the same thing. UNC lost both times in the Elite Eight.
During Williams years at Kansas, Jacque Vaughn and Aaron Miles and Jeff Boschee and Kirk Hinrich all started at point guard during their freshman seasons. In this era of early departures to the NBA and constant roster turnover, it might seem easier to win now than it used to be with a freshman point guard.
Williams said thats not necessarily the case.
Its been done, but its not easy by any means, Williams said. Were a little more complicated than other people. I give the point guard more responsibilities than other people. I knew with Marcus that I had a kid who was very intelligent to begin with, but had great basketball savvy. It was probably easier for him than it would be a lot of other people.
It wasnt easy for Paige, though, at least not early on. The Tar Heels floundered in November and December, in part because Paige struggled to grasp Williams offense. His teammates, meanwhile, took time to adapt to a new point guard.
They had grown accustomed to Marshall, who specialized in creating scoring opportunities that might have even surprised his teammates. With Paige, there were far fewer of those.
The beginning of the season, everybody, me and a lot of the guys who had played here last year kind of knew what was expected out of the point guard, said James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward. And we kind of just expected him to know, and there were definitely some times where we all held him to a higher standard.
McAdoo and other players werent the only ones who placed Paige on such a pedestal. So, too, did Williams.
Given the nuances of his offense the importance of creating transition opportunities, of pushing tempo Williams places more responsibility on his point guards than perhaps any other position. Its always been that way.
Point guards, if you make one mistake it seems like its more than one mistake, said C.B. McGrath, a UNC assistant coach who was a backup point guard for Williams at Kansas from 1994-98. The other guys can sort of get away with some things here and there but (Williams) just expects that guy to be so good with the ball, and get everybody in the right place.
But hes always been that way whether it was Jacque Vaughn or Raymond Felton.
Even though McGrath began his career at Kansas as a walk-on, he understands the pressure that comes with being a freshman point guard in Williams system. Paige has wilted under it at times but, more often than not, he has thrived lately amid that pressure.
But today comes another first in a season full of them. Paige appeared at ease on Thursday. Coming off perhaps his best three-game stretch of the season, he appeared relaxed. At one point before UNCs open shoot-around at the Sprint Center, he gathered with his teammates in a circle and played Catch Phrase a word-guessing game.
During the past month, since UNC changed its starting lineup and began using a more perimeter-based offense, a simple trend has emerged. The Heels have been at their best when Paige has been at his best.
Hes grown up, P.J. Hairston, UNCs sophomore guard, said on Thursday of Paige.
Paige he has more growing to do, but he said hes prepared. He expected some of the adversity early on, but hes not expecting any now. He envisioned this day about a year ago, and how he believes hes ready for it.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter