This story incorrectly stated that the University of Iowa is 110 miles west of UNC guard Marcus Paige's hometown. Marion, Iowa, is about 30 miles north of the school.
CHAPEL HILL - Marcus Paige had been to what they call “Late Night in the Phog” – the preseason basketball celebration at Kansas’ Phog Allen Field House – and he had spent no shortage of time getting to know Bill Self, the Jayhawks head coach.
And so for a long while midway through his high school years in Iowa, Paige, the junior guard at North Carolina, thought he would commit to Kansas. He was close, but his parents and coaches told him to wait. Something might change. And then it did – his dream school came calling.
Paige on Tuesday recounted the story of his recruitment – how he left Iowa, where he became one of the best prospects in the country, and how he made it to UNC, despite nearly committing to Kansas.
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He told the story, particularly, of his first conversation with Roy Williams. It was at the beginning of Paige’s junior year at Linn-Mar High in Marion, Iowa.
“The first time he called me I, like, freaked out, because I always wanted to go to North Carolina,” Paige said. “I was hoping that’s what it would lead to. It was the beginning of my junior year, and I talked to him for like five or six minutes.
“And then talked to my parents for like two hours about how cool it was.”
This week has brought about a time for reflection for Paige given the Tar Heels’ game on Wednesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge is against Iowa, the school that’s just about 30 miles from Paige’s hometown. He has had the natural thoughts that come after any major life decision: What if he’d gone a different direction?
Paige could have wound up in Lawrence, Kan., playing for the Jayhawks. He could have stayed home, too, and played for Iowa State or Iowa. Both schools wanted him.
If Williams didn’t call when he did, or if Williams’ interest in Paige had developed too late, maybe Paige on Wednesday night is wearing a road jersey instead.
“You think about those things a lot,” Paige said of the what-ifs. “But you know, you can’t wish they were any different because you made the choice, and I’m glad I made this choice. It’s changed my life for the better, and in so many ways I can’t even begin to describe it.”
Tokoto’s first assist: telling Roy
The greatest what-if of all surrounding Paige’s journey to UNC might be this: What if J.P. Tokoto, now a junior forward at UNC, hadn’t told Williams that he might want to give Paige a long look?
Williams would have eventually learned, anyway, about Paige, who became one of the top point guard prospects in 2012 class. Tokoto, though, turned the coach on to the player for the first time.
That accelerated Williams’ interest and – who knows – perhaps kept Paige from committing elsewhere early. Williams told the story on Tuesday.
“I’d been recruiting J.P. quite a while,” he said. “And I said, ‘J.P., in your class, we’re also looking to get a really good point guard. So let me know if you see a point guard I’d really like.’”
It so happened that Tokoto was playing in a tournament in St. Louis. There, Tokoto became familiar with Paige, and Tokoto passed word to Williams, who watched Paige later that summer in Orlando in a national AAU tournament.
It didn’t take long for Williams to see what Tokoto saw. And more. Williams’ first impressions of Paige?
“That he had the total package,” Williams said. “He was a wonderful student. He was a wonderful leader. That was at the end of his sophomore year, I guess, and they won the state championship that year with a bunch of seniors and him.
“But I really thought that he was the leader of the team. But it was all about the team.”
Tar Heel with hints of Hawkeye
Paige remains close to his Iowa roots – and to longtime friends who play for the Hawkeyes. He’ll see them Wednesday night in the Smith Center, and he said he’d talked often this week with Mike Gesell, an Iowa guard who played on his AAU team.
Adam Woodbury, the Hawkeyes’ 7-foot-1 center, also played on that team. And “for a whole bunch of years,” Paige said, he played against Hawkeyes Josh Oglesby and Jarrod Uthoff.
Paige said it will be “cool,” to play against this many familiar faces. When he returned home to Iowa last December, he took in an Iowa game just so he could catch up with his friends, say hello. There will be some of that Wednesday, at least before the game.
“I like the fact that they’re coming down here,” Paige said. “I’ve been home. I know what home is like. So it’s cool to have them kind of see what I get to go through every day and where I call home now. And experience what it’s like to be at a North Carolina basketball game. So hopefully we can come out on top, but it will be cool to compete against guys that I consider really good friends.”
Playing against Iowa is significant for Paige, given the school’s presence in his hometown. The Tar Heels ended their season last year against Iowa State in the NCAA tournament in San Antonio, and that game was more meaningful because of what was at stake – win or go home.
This one, though, is more meaningful emotionally – at least to Paige. He has a lot of friends who went to Iowa, and allegiance to Hawkeyes runs deep in his family.
“My grandpa is one of the biggest Hawkeye fans you’ll find,” said Paige, who has averaged a little more than 15 points per game in UNC’s first six games. “So I don’t know what he’s going to do (Wednesday). Hopefully he’s going to cheer for me, but he’s been a Hawk fan a lot longer than I’ve been alive. So I can’t knock him if he slips up once or twice if they score.”