Everywhere Marcus Paige goes these days people ask about his right hand. It’s in a bandage now, wrapped up after he broke a bone during a practice early last week.
People want to know how it’s feeling and healing. Professors. Classmates. A random person behind the wheel of a food truck making its way around campus on Wednesday.
“(I was) on my way to the gym, (and the driver) just stops and yelled out the window and asked how my hand was doing,” Paige, the North Carolina senior guard, said during a press conference later on Wednesday. “That’s pretty random. I was just minding my own business walking to the gym.
“It’s cool to see that people care, I guess.”
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It will be a little while – Paige is hoping three to four weeks, and no more – before the questions about his hand stop and he’s able to play again. In the meantime, though, his teammates will attempt to answer other questions that surround them amid Paige’s injury.
Chief among them: How does No. 1 UNC react and adapt to the loss of their best and most reliable player, and their undisputed leader? UNC’s first opportunity to address that unknown, and others, will come in its season-opener on Friday night against Temple in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Md.
As of Wednesday, UNC coach Roy Williams said he hadn’t “even thought about” what his starting lineup would look like without Paige. He started to list off the starters UNC used last week during its exhibition victory against Guilford: Joel Berry, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson …
Except, wait, coach – a reporter reminded Williams that Jackson, the sophomore forward who was recovering from an illness, actually didn’t play in the exhibition.
“See, I told you I haven’t thought about it,” Williams said. “... I really haven’t. I guess I had better start sometime before Friday.”
Williams has a couple of options. He could go with the backcourt lineup he used in the exhibition game: Berry, the sophomore, at point guard and Britt, a junior, playing off the ball.
If you would tell me that this would make Marcus fresher in March, then I’d really be happy for it. But I don’t know that that’s going to happen because he plays so hard all the time.
UNC coach Roy Williams
Or Williams could start Berry alongside Theo Pinson, the sophomore wing forward. Jackson, now recovered from the ailment that kept him out of the exhibition, will start at small forward, with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, two other returning starters, in the frontcourt.
What happens in the backcourt without Paige, though, is the foremost question that will surround UNC during the coming weeks. Paige, hindered last season by plantar fasciitis, was set to enter the season as healthy has he had been since his sophomore year.
He had appeared on numerous preseason All-American lists, and media covering the ACC selected him the preseason co-player of the year, along with Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon. Then the dynamic of Paige’s senior season changed in the time it took his hand to become caught in Luke Maye’s jersey.
The good news for Paige, at least: the injury shouldn’t keep him out long.
“When I heard the timeline, I was a little more optimistic,” Paige said. “I’m not a doctor, so when I heard your hand is broken, I had no idea. I thought that could mean two months or three months. To hear three to four weeks, hopefully, was a little bit better for me.”
If Paige misses the first three weeks he’d miss UNC’s first six games – a stretch that includes a Nov. 21 game at Northern Iowa, which UNC scheduled to give Paige, an Iowa native, a homecoming. Paige, though, hasn’t abandoned the idea of playing then, though he acknowledged the “very tight timeline.”
It’s more likely, without any setbacks or delays, that Paige makes his season debut on Dec. 1 against No. 3 Maryland. The Maryland game, one that’s a part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, is expected to offer the top-ranked Tar Heels their most significant early-season challenge.
In the meantime UNC’s hope is that Paige’s injury turns into a positive in the long run – that perhaps the team is better in March because of how it will adapt during the next few weeks of November. Paige’s playing time will be most divided among Berry, Britt, Pinson and Kenny Williams, the freshman shooting guard.
“If you would tell me that this would make Marcus fresher in March, then I’d really be happy for it,” Roy Williams said. “But I don’t know that that’s going to happen because he plays so hard all the time.”
Even so, Williams said, “the opportunity is there for some guys to step up.”
Starting on Friday night, in the first game of a season that begins with championship aspirations.