CHAPEL HILL — Marcus Paige spent the majority of his first season at North Carolina as a passer and a facilitator – as the guy in charge of running the Tar Heels’ offense. Then came Friday night, and his first college start at shooting guard.
Paige likely wouldn’t have played there, and would have started at point guard, instead, had UNC started the season with its full complement of players. The Tar Heels, though, didn’t have that luxury, and might not for a while.
And so Paige did what UNC most needed him to do: He provided offense from the perimeter.
“It’s different,” said Paige, who tied his career-high with four 3-pointers, all of which came in the first half of UNC’s 84-61 victory against Oakland. “Especially last year because we had guys that could really score – like P.J. (Hairston) and Reggie (Bullock) and James Michael (McAdoo), especially toward the end of the year.
“This year now I’m one of the primary guys, and so I have to try to just do more offensively. I’m getting used to it, but it’s still a process for me.”
Paige on Friday night was one of several UNC players who thrived in new roles. In addition to Paige, there was J.P. Tokoto, the sophomore forward who provided little offensively a season ago. He finished with a career-high 13 points, showed off a refined shooting touch.
There was James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward, who finished with a game-high 21 points – most of them coming in his return to power forward. McAdoo during the second half of last season rarely had a chance to play there, after the Tar Heels’ began using a smaller lineup.
And in addition to the returnees, there were freshmen Nate Britt, who started at point guard, and Kennedy Meeks, the freshman center who scored 10 points in 13 minutes. All four of those players – Paige, Tokoto, Britt and Meeks – entered the season-opener surrounded by questions about how they’d fit into their roles.
And all four, for the first game, at least, provided positive answers. McAdoo, after an uneven sophomore season, might have made the best impression. UNC coach Roy Williams was most pleased by his shot selection – and that nine of his 13 field goal attempts went in.
“You look down and 9 for 13,” Williams said. “He took one bad shot, and that was it. But he was active. He only had nine rebounds, but I think he had seven or eight at halftime. But there was not too much that I didn’t like about his game.”
UNC for the foreseeable future will be without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, the team’s two best perimeter players. Without them, Paige has had to take on added scoring responsibility. So, too, has Tokoto.
He scored all of his 13 points in the first half, and also finished with a career-high five assists. Two of those came on passes that set up alley-oop dunks – one to McAdoo and another to Brice Johnson. The most noticeable difference in Tokoto’s game, though, was his improved shot.
“(I’m) just focusing on the rotation of the ball, getting it up there,” he said. “Using my legs, so much not as my arms.”
The difference was noticeable, especially in the first half. Statistically, UNC’s first half on Friday was among the best of Williams’ tenure as the Tar Heels’ head coach. UNC during the first 20 minutes against Oakland shot 74.2 percent from the field – the Tar Heels’ best shooting percentage in a half under Williams.
The Tar Heels aren’t likely to duplicate that, and more often than not they likely won’t come close. Even so, UNC ended its first game surrounded by optimism thanks to how well various players adapted to unfamiliar roles.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter