The transformation of UNC’s Marcus Paige

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2014 

  • No. 6 UNC vs. No. 11 Providence

    When: 7: 20 p.m.   Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio

    TV/Radio: TNT/106.1-WRDU

    Projected starting lineups

    UNC (23-9)

    G Marcus Paige 17.4 ppg, 4.3 apg

    G Leslie McDonald 10.3 ppg, 2 rpg

    F J.P. Tokoto 9.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg

    F James Michael McAdoo 14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg

    F Kennedy Meeks 7.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg

    Providence (23-11)

    G Bryce Cotton 21.4, 5.8 apg

    G Josh Fortune 8.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg

    F LaDontae Henton 13.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg

    F Tyler Harris 11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg

    F Kadeem Batts 12.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg

    UNC moves on if:

    It rebounds well and successfully forces the tempo. The Tar Heels’ rebounding has been nonexistent during the past two games – losses against Duke and Pittsburgh. UNC has been one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and it has to generate second-chance opportunities. Providence lacks depth, too, so if the Tar Heels are able to get out in transition they could have a chance to wear down the Friars.

    UNC goes home if:

    It struggles in the aforementioned areas – rebounding and setting its desired pace – and if it doesn’t successfully defend Bryce Cotton, Providence’s senior guard. Cotton has been one of the most productive guards in the nation this season, and he leads the nation in minutes per game (39.9). He has been an iron man for Providence, and UNC has to find a way to disrupt him, which in turn would disrupt the rest of the Friars’ offense.

— Before he walked off to go mess around on the Internet and watch some videos, Marcus Paige stopped in the kitchen and drew up some plays for his mom, then the girls’ basketball coach at Lin Marr High in Iowa.

The moment didn’t last long, Paige making his suggestions. His mom, Sherryl, was going to be coaching in the state playoffs, and Paige had an idea or two about what might work. Once finished, Ellis Paige said, his son “just strolled into the living room and turned on some YouTube. And (my wife) turned to me and said, ‘He gets it, Ellis.’ 

Paige, now a sophomore guard at North Carolina, was in the eighth grade then. His dad recounted the story this week during a phone interview days before he planned to travel to the Tar Heels’ game against Providence on Friday in the NCAA tournament.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this dude really understands the game,’ ” he said.

About a year ago, Ellis Paige was like most people who had watched Marcus grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: He was waiting. Waiting for the younger Paige to prove himself. For him to become comfortable running the Tar Heels’ offense. Waiting for Paige to show why he’d been one of the most sought high school prospects in the nation.

Still, Ellis Paige didn’t necessarily see this coming – the 30-point scoring games in victories against Louisville and N.C. State. The emergence of Paige as the Tar Heels’ most valuable player. The All-America and all-conference honors that have followed this season.

“I think it’s a lot earlier than we anticipated,” Ellis Paige said.

His son’s play is the primary reason UNC has survived – and sometimes thrived – without P.J. Hairston, who entered the season as the Tar Heels’ leading returning scorer and left midway through it without ever having played a game. Paige is also the primary reason why UNC has hope that its season won’t end here and that it could continue next week in New York, and perhaps beyond.

It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be like this. Paige entered the season expecting to play a supporting role, not a starring one. Last season, at times, was a struggle.

“Marcus truly thought, ‘I’m going to hold this bad boy down until P.J. comes back,’ ” Ellis Paige said. “When P.J. didn’t come back, I was like, OK. He continued that and I was like, ‘Wow.’ Marcus isn’t playing around this year.”

Paige didn’t play around last season either, but he went through his stretches of poor play – times when he was overwhelmed mentally and physically. For so long, the game had come easily to him. He arrived at UNC and all of a sudden it wasn’t anymore.

The adjustment was frustrating. Paige had prepared well. He’d grown up watching tapes of Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson.

He’d studied his sport, so much so that during postgame interviews now he sounds like he’s in studio, breaking things down. He’s always had an appreciation fo basketball analysts, and during halftime of NBA games – when other kids might have changed the channel or started a video game – Paige paid close attention.

“And they’re talking about what this player does well and what this player does well,” Paige said. “That’s where my passion for it and interests came in. And then having my mom and dad as coaches didn’t hurt. You know, I’d get to go to practice every day when I was a little kid and listen to them talk basketball. So it’s just kind of natural.”

Sherryl Paige coached high school for 20 years. Ellis Paige coached Marcus’ AAU teams between fourth and eighth grade. It might have been then when Marcus learned how to be an extension of his coach.

He expected to be that last season for UNC coach Roy Williams, but there was a long, difficult learning curve.

“Just because as a point guard learning this system, it’s tough,” Paige said. “You know, that first year, they talk about it all the time. They said Raymond (Felton) struggled. Ty (Lawson) struggled. Like those guys are in the NBA, making millions of dollars, and they struggled with this.

“So once you get over that hump, you can just kind of relax and play basketball, and I think that’s been big for me.”

Entering this season, Paige looked different physically. An offseason in the weight room had helped him gain 15 pounds, and he weighed more than 170. That transition, though, didn’t compare to the one he went through mentally.

Paige’s confidence started to grow at the end of last season, when he became a more effective scorer and shooter. Then came UNC’s usual summer pickup games with the alumni, and Paige picked up a thing or two from the older the guys – mostly from Felton.

“When he came back (home this summer), the first thing he talked about was, ‘I’m so much better as a point guard now,’ ” Ellis Paige said.

Before November, though, Paige had never carried UNC offensively. He hadn’t yet fully become the extension of Williams that he wanted to be.

At one point early in the season, Paige said, C.B. McGrath, the UNC assistant coach most responsible for recruiting him, pulled him aside. Hairston’s status was in doubt then, and McGrath made clear to Paige that more was expected.

The message came through. When Paige scored 32 points in the Tar Heels’ victory against Louisville in late November, it was a surprise because he’d never done such a thing.

When he scored 34 and led UNC to an overtime victory at N.C. State in late February, it was almost expected. In that game, everybody knew Paige would take the final shot. He made the winning layup, anyway, just before time expired.

Paige received the ACC Most Improved Player award in large part because of his improved scoring. That came out of necessity, though, and because of UNC’s reality without Hairston.

Like everything else, though, Paige’s scoring has been a byproduct of his mental mastery of the game – his understanding of when to take it over and when to back off, of how to best attack defenders. Paige spends hours laboring over video, watching clips of himself and his opposition.

Asked to name where he’s improved the most, Paige doesn’t talk about scoring. He talks about confidence. Williams, meanwhile, is quick to mention Paige’s defense. The most dramatic difference might be this: a year ago he was still figuring out college. Now he sees himself as a kind of coach on the court – a projection of Williams.

“I’m pretty confident that I know exactly what coach wants, whereas last year I was still trying to figure that out,” Paige said. “So that was tough. But now that I know the system, I know what he wants – I can kind of tell what plays he’s going to call or what defense he’s going to call in certain situations.

“So then I try to just be that on the court.”

Days before he planned to travel to Texas, Ellis Paige thought of the long-term future – where his son goes from here and what he does for an encore. Last season provided small glimpses, and this season a more complete picture. There will be a third college season, Ellis said, and the plan is for Marcus to remain in school for four years.

But, Ellis said, “The fourth year, I really don’t know.”

There will be time to make those decisions. A year ago, Paige entered the NCAA tournament uncertain and not knowing what to expect. Now he’s the ultimate NCAA tournament commodity: an experienced guard capable of carrying a team.

Williams better than most understands the value of those types of players. Guard play is magnified in March.

“Every coach, we always talk about big guys, big guys, but there’s not a coach in the world that’s very comfortable if you don’t have good guards,” Williams said. “And I think in the NCAA tournament, guards – perhaps their value is even enhanced by the type of games that you’re going to be playing.”

Felton helped lead UNC to the national championship in 2005, and Lawson followed in 2009. Both had enviable supporting casts but, Williams said recently, “Marcus has had a great, great year, and his year is comparable to any of those guys.”

A season ago, Williams spoke of Paige with a sense of the future in mind. He told people then that Paige would be good. Just wait. Back home in Iowa, Ellis Paige believed the same. Just wait.

Now a wait of a different kind has begun – the wait to see how far Paige might take UNC in the postseason.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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