Marcus Paige has been at North Carolina for so long that he forgot, in a sense, what he looked like three years ago during his freshman season. And so recently he sat down and watched some old highlights.
There he was on screen: the old familiar undershirt under his jersey, his frame even more slender.
“I just wanted to remember what I looked like, wearing the t-shirt and ankle braces and stuff,” Paige said late last week. “And I was like, man, I looked like a 14-year-old out there. But it’s been fun, man.”
Paige and his teammates at UNC hope there’s still a lot of season left. They hope, more precisely, to still be playing a month from now. If they are, it’d mean that the Tar Heels would be headed to Houston, and to the Final Four.
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But now comes something of an ending, too. UNC’s game against Syracuse on Monday night will represent the final game at the Smith Center for Paige and fellow seniors Brice Johnson and Joel James (and also for senior walk-ons Spenser Dalton, Toby Egbuna and Justin Coleman, who earned a scholarship).
Paige said Friday, before his team’s 79-74 loss at Virginia on Saturday, that thoughts of his final home game have been difficult to escape. He has looked around the enormity of the Smith Center, the banners above, the blue seats and thought … one more time running out of the tunnel, and one more game on the Smith Center court.
“Where has the time gone?” Paige said he has asked himself. “When did I get so old?”
Those are questions that not many players in his position have had an opportunity to ask themselves. A four-year starter at one of the most tradition-rich schools in the country, Paige is something of an anomaly: the one who stayed through his senior season.
The same could be said for Johnson, who entered UNC’s starting lineup last season and has emerged as an ACC Player of the Year candidate in his final college season. College career arcs like the ones belonging to Paige and Johnson don’t come around all that often these days.
At least not at the major-conference level, at a place like UNC. In the ACC, for instance, 23 players during the past three seasons have left school to enter the NBA draft. They include former UNC players Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto.
They include the likes of Jahlil Okafor, who left Duke after last season to become the No. 3 pick in the draft, and N.C. State’s Trevor Lacey, who left school after his junior season and went undrafted last summer. The pattern of early entries has shown one thing: there’s no pattern at all.
Players who are projected to be high picks often leave. Players who aren’t projected to be high picks often leave. Players who projected somewhere in the middle often leave.
And then there’s Paige and Johnson. They’ve never been projected as high draft picks, necessarily. Yet neither were Lacey, Tokoto and McAdoo. And that didn’t stop those three from leaving school early.
Paige knows what people say. He knows that “senior” is something of a dirty word in college basketball.
“In terms of next-level projections and stuff, there’s a negative stigma on a senior,” said Paige, who is the ACC’s active career scoring leader. “Like if he’s still in college, then what’s wrong with his game? But you’ve also seen instances where seniors have really dominated.”
His teammate Johnson is an example of that, as he’s averaging about 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. Paige has expressed interest in becoming a television basketball analyst once he’s finished playing and he recently switched into analyst mode and described what Johnson has gained by staying in school.
“Brice, this year – I think he’s made himself a lot of money, honestly, by coming back to school and returning and he’s going to have his degree and everything,” Paige said. “So it just depends on a person to person basis. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with staying four years.”
In some ways this is what college basketball has become during the past 10 or 15 years: a sport in which a four-year starter has to explain why he’s still in school. What used to be taken for granted – that a player would stick around a certain number of years before leaving – can no longer be assumed.
This adds another unique layer to UNC’s senior night: it includes prominent players who have been around long enough to have become a genuine part of the campus community. Paige and Johnson during the past four years have been part of on-campus pick-up games.
They’re regular visitors, like many UNC athletes before them, to the lunch counter at Sutton’s on Franklin St. Their experience at UNC has been about more than basketball.
Roy Williams, the UNC coach, has sometimes described college basketball as “a bus stop.” Players arrive and leave as quickly as possible on their way to the next level. Williams’ seniors have been in no such rush, though.
Part of that is, yes, none of them have been viewed as potential lottery picks in the NBA draft. Certainly, though, Paige and Johnson could have left school by now to begin their professional careers.
“They’re really an unusual group,” Williams said of Paige, Johnson and James. “Completely, completely different personalities. The uniqueness of the three of them is something that I really enjoy that part of it, too.”
Paige is the serious one, Williams said. And Johnson the goofball. James, meanwhile, showed up at UNC after having never played basketball on any level before high school.
Williams has helped those three players grow up, in some ways. UNC fans have watched it happen the past three-plus years. Johnson is a prime example of how a player can develop, and he’s among the group of players that have come the farthest under Williams during his coaching career.
“You could take his pulse,” Williams said of Johnson, “and there wasn’t one there. … I think he’s done some amazing things and I still get so mad at him because I want more. And I push him to get more and more and more.”
Paige and Johnson are hoping for more. Their senior seasons haven’t exactly gone as they expected. And now it’s nearly over – just two regular-season games remaining and their final home game upon them.
Johnson was in no mood to think about it on Saturday night, after his team’s loss at Virginia.
“It’s fine and dandy that it’s senior night but I don’t really care about all that,” he said. “I want to win. It’s nice that people want to honor us in the last home game but at the end of the day I want to win.
“I want a championship.”