GREENSBORO — James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige understand that now it’s mostly up to them – that how they play in North Carolina’s next game will determine whether the Tar Heels have another game to play, and that how they played in that one, if there is one, will determine whether UNC’s season lives on.
The Tar Heels have been at their best when they’ve been balanced, when role players have emerged to help relieve the pressure that McAdoo and Paige have shouldered. Entering the NCAA tournament, though, the Tar Heels are likely to go as far as McAdoo and Paige take them.
McAdoo, a junior forward, recently stood in his team’s locker room at the Greensboro Coliseum and acknowledged his burden. The Tar Heels had just endured an 80-75 defeat against Pittsburgh on Friday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals – a defeat in which McAdoo didn’t play particularly well.
“I think today was the classic case,” he said after he scored 15 points but made just four of 13 shots. “It’s really important (for he and Paige to both play well). Even today, when he played great and I played alright, we still had a chance.
“I think that kind of just shows how good we can play. But we don’t want to be speaking hypotheticals come next week. So I think both of us will be ready when our first (NCAA tournament game) is played.”
It can’t be overstated, the importance of Paige and McAdoo to UNC’s success. When they’re at their best, so too are the Tar Heels. Even so, they drive the team in different ways.
Statistically, Paige’s numbers are more tied to wins and losses. There has been a noticeable difference in his numbers – and especially his shooting percentage – in the Tar Heels’ victories and defeats.
Entering the NCAA tournament, for instance, Paige is shooting 38.3 percent in defeats and 46.8 percent in victories. From the perimeter, he has made 44.4 percent of his 3-point attempts in victories, and 28.4 percent of his 3s in defeats.
Paige scored 27 points in the loss against Pitt, and his late-game scoring barrage helped the Tar Heels nearly erase the 20-point deficit they faced with 71/2 minutes to play. More than once this season, Paige has carried the Tar Heels, and he’s the player UNC looks to when it’s at its most desperate.
McAdoo, meanwhile, has been statistically similar in wins and losses. Even so, the box scores don’t always reflect the energy and intensity he brought during the Tar Heels’ most successful stretch of the season.
McAdoo became an emotional catalyst during UNC’s 12-game winning streak – especially early on. After the Tar Heels started 1-4 in the ACC for the first time in school history, McAdoo changed.
He made a habit of diving on the court for loose balls, for outhustling opponents for rebounds. After highlight-worthy plays – a dunk, a layup – McAdoo exerted emotion that seemed to energize his teammates. Once, he high-fived a fan on the front row after he took a foul and made a layup.
“It’s a different attitude,” sophomore forward Brice Johnson said of UNC’s mindset when Paige and McAdoo are playing well at the same time. “When they’re scoring … everything’s clicking the way we want it to.”
Lately, Paige and McAdoo haven’t been clicking at the same time. The Tar Heels have suffered as a result.
McAdoo labored offensively and struggled to establish himself in the post against Pitt. During the loss at Duke to end the regular season, he made four of five shots, but played just 24 minutes because of foul trouble.
Paige has played well offensively in UNC’s past two games – he had 24 points in the loss at Duke – but before that he scored just 16 combined in sloppy victories against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. His recent inconsistency, along with McAdoo’s struggles, again prove UNC’s reliance on its two best players.
At times, even, coach Roy Williams has described it as an overreliance. He has bemoaned the Tar Heels’ lack of balance more than once this season, and he was pleased when role players helped carry UNC during portions of its long winning streak.
There were strong performances from freshman forward Kennedy Meeks at Florida State, and from Leslie McDonald during UNC’s victory against Duke at the Smith Center, and from sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto in the overtime victory at N.C. State. Ultimately, though, UNC is nearing the end of the season the same way it started it: with Paige and McAdoo needing to be at their best for the Tar Heels to be at theirs.
“I think it’s important for a lot of our guys to be at our best,” said Paige, who earned first-team All-ACC honors and won the conference’s most improved player award. “But obviously, we set the tone as leaders of the team.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter