If it seems like something has been off with Marcus Paige, the North Carolina junior guard, that’s because it’s true. Paige said so himself on Sunday in the moments after the Tar Heels’ dominant victory against East Carolina.
“There’s something funky going on with my shot right now,” he said after making three of his eight attempts and finishing with eight points.
This, though, was a happy Paige. A contented Paige. He had six assists and but one turnover and, more important, UNC won.
That’s always Paige’s ultimate definition of success – wins and losses – but he’s had to adjust his expectations while he continues to search for his form from a season ago. Paige isn’t off to a bad start to his junior season – he’s averaging around 15 points a game – but it’s not quite what he expected, either.
Or what a lot of people did. Paige entered the season as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year and a preseason All-American. His breakout season last year made him one of the most recognizable players in the nation.
Which make his relative struggles all the more visible. It’s a different world for him now, too. Different teammates. A different role, where he has more support than he did a season ago. The expectations certainly changed – at least those surrounding him – from last year to this.
There was pressure a season ago, especially when it became clear P.J. Hairston wasn’t going to play. But now there might be more pressure.
“I think I’m handling it all right,” Paige said. “Obviously, I’m not killing the game right now, but I know what I need to do for this team, and tonight I was 6-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. J.P. (Tokoto) was 8-1. That’s the type of thing we need.
“We need me to be a steady presence on the court, and be a leader, and be a vocal leader, too.”
Paige admitted that he “got a little bit away from that” amid his shooting struggles to start the season. He shot 44 percent a season ago, but now he’s shooting about 35 percent – same as he did during his freshman season.
There’s a theory that opposing defenses are focusing more on Paige, which would make sense given he’s UNC’s only proven perimeter shooter. Outside the season opener against N.C. Central, though, other teams haven’t been all that creative against him, he said.
“Defenses played me the same for most of last year as they’re playing me this year early,” Paige said. “With the exception of Central, the first game, throwing a box and one.”
No, Paige said, all the missed shots in the early going are a result of “something funky,” as he put it, with his shot.
“And I’m going to go back and look at some film. I might be kicking my leg and not holding my follow-through or something. But I’ve gotten good looks, so it’s not necessarily anything there. So I just need to start knocking them down.”
Paige has endured shooting slumps before. He was mired in a long one during his freshman season, all the while with coach Roy Williams insisting that Paige would eventually make those shots. And eventually he did.
The slump is magnified now, though. Paige made it look easy at times a season ago, and the thought was that he’d pick up where he left off.
It hasn’t happened that way, though. The loss against Iowa last week seemed to bother Paige, especially. He made just four of his 16 attempts from the field.
“The best way to get past it is to play again,” he said on Sunday. “So the past 48 hours or whatever for me – I haven’t been happy-go-lucky and running campus. It’s tough, because those things linger in your mind. Specific plays. Just the entire game in general.”
Individually, the response on Sunday might not have been what he’d hoped. A quiet eight points. But his team won comfortably, and there was the 6-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. And the hope that, eventually, the shots will fall.
Success in November and December doesn’t always equal success in March – just ask a couple recent Duke teams – nor do some early-season woes necessarily doom teams later on. What happens now, though, often does provide some good insight into what will happen later.
If you want to make the Final Four, for instance, it’s best not to have any more than two losses at this point in the season. And it’s better, of course, to be undefeated. Nine of the past 16 Final Four teams – including defending national champion Connecticut – entered the second week of December undefeated.
One – 2013 Louisville – had one loss at this point, and four of the most recent 16 Final Four teams had lost two games by now. The only recent Final Four participant to have more than two losses this early? Butler in 2011, when the Bulldogs started the season 4-4.