The first challenge of a season that will begin with national championship aspirations came not in the final seconds of a tense game, not in an overtime, not with seconds expiring on a do-or-die possession. No, it came during a practice amid the most mundane of circumstances.
During a North Carolina practice Oct. 3, freshman Luke Maye made a move to drive down the lane. Marcus Paige, a senior guard, moved into position to play defense. He caught his hand in Maye’s jersey and, in that instant, the dynamic of the first few weeks of the Tar Heels’ season changed.
Paige and his teammates knew few things would come easily this season, given their expectations. They might not have known that their first significant test would begin a little more than 24 hours after they debuted at No. 1, for a record ninth time, in The Associated Press’ preseason Top 25.
“A freak accident,” Theo Pinson, a sophomore forward, said of the moment Paige was injured.
And that it was. Paige’s right hand became stuck in Maye’s jersey at precisely the right angle – or the wrong one, as it turned out – that it broke the third metacarpal in Paige’s hand.
The good news for UNC and Paige is that the broken bone will not require surgery. Even so, Paige is expected to miss the first three weeks of the season, a stretch that includes the first five games.
His injury has added an unforeseen challenge to the start of the season. It also means Paige likely won’t play Nov. 21 at Northern Iowa in a game UNC scheduled to give Paige, an Iowa native, a homecoming.
More important, in the short term, is how the Tar Heels compensate for the loss of their most important player. During the past two seasons, Paige has earned the team’s most valuable player award during its end-of-season banquet.
He averaged a team-leading 14.1 points per game a season ago, and he did so while playing a team-high 33.2 minutes per game. Minutes that now will be spread among other perimeter players: guards Joel Berry and Nate Britt and wing forwards Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson.
“Everybody’s got to try to play even closer to their potential,” coach Roy Williams said last week after a 50-point exhibition victory against Guilford. “Can’t have any sloppiness. The team we’re going to play next Friday night is a different-level team.”
That would be Temple, which UNC will open the season against Friday in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Md. The Owls won 26 games a season ago and reached the National Invitation Tournament semifinals, where they lost against Miami.
Every kid has more confidence in him than anybody else on our squad. So it’s a big loss but it’s there, and everybody’s just got to pull together.
UNC coach Roy Williams on Marcus Paige
If Williams sticks with the same starting lineup from the exhibition, then Britt, a junior, and Berry, a sophomore, would start Friday night. Britt has started 19 games the past two seasons and Berry, Williams said, might have been UNC’s second-best player – behind Paige – in the preseason.
Berry cited his defensive improvement for his progression since the end of last season. He has worked on becoming more aggressive defensively – on not allowing opposing guards to simply bring the ball across halfcourt in a leisurely manner.
“Once I get my defense going, I feel like my game is (better) – I’m more confident,” Berry said.
Britt and Berry played well against Guilford, an NCAA Division III team. Britt finished with 14 points and nine assists, and Berry had 12 points and seven assists. Combined, they had a 4-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
Not that the game against Guilford was much of a test. The challenge of replacing Paige will become significantly more difficult Friday night.
If UNC uses the same approach it did in the exhibition, then Britt likely is to spend most of his time at point guard, with Berry playing off the ball. The two can rotate positions in the backcourt, though, and Pinson and Jackson, who missed the exhibition while recovering from an illness, also could see some time at shooting guard.
At the time of the exhibition UNC had practiced twice without Paige. Williams hadn’t yet had much of a chance to see how his team would react to the loss, though some things go without saying.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever coached and he’s the confidence-maker on the entire team,” Williams said of Paige. “Every kid has more confidence in him than anybody else on our squad. So it’s a big loss but it’s there, and everybody’s just got to pull together.”
The hope, at least eventually, is that UNC becomes better because of Paige’s injury. That his absence forces other players to make the most of opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have received.
And that the extra playing time for Britt, Berry and others accelerates their improvement. Paige’s first game back could be Dec. 1 against Maryland. When he returns, the Tar Heels’ hope is they will be a better, more complete team than before Paige’s injury.
“That’s how we’ve got to look at it,” Pinson, a sophomore forward, said. “Just getting more guys more time in pressure situations. And we know what Marcus can give us. We know he’s not there and we know what he’s going to give us when he gets back, but that gives us more experience.”