After missing North Carolina’s first six games while recovering from a broken bone in his right hand, senior guard Marcus Paige is expected to play on Tuesday against No. 2 Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Paige will start on Tuesday night “if he has a good practice today,” coach Roy Williams said on Monday. Paige practiced Saturday, and there were no setbacks, Williams said, to his right hand, which has healed since Paige suffered a broken third metacarpal days before the start of the season.
Williams said he wasn’t yet “100-percent sure” who would start alongside Paige in the backcourt, but that it would likely be Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard. In that case, Paige would be the team’s shooting guard, while Berry would primarily handle the team’s point guard responsibilities.
“I feel good going into the game,” Paige said Monday. “My body feels good. My hand feels good. I guess my hand won’t be technically, like, fully 100 percent for a while. But I don’t have any pain.”
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Paige will wear a protective pad on his right hand. He said he’s comfortable wearing it and it doesn’t inhibit his ability to dribble or shoot.
Paige, the Tar Heels’ leading scorer the past two seasons, had been hoping for an injury-free senior season after he played through plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition, through most of last year. But then came the hand injury days before the start of the regular season.
UNC went 5-1 in his absence, with its only defeat a 71-67 loss at Northern Iowa in a game that was scheduled to give Paige, an Iowa native, a homecoming. The Tar Heels after that loss won the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City with victories against Northwestern and Kansas State.
Against Kansas State, UNC trailed by eight points with about 4 1/2 minutes to play before closing the game on a 21-3 run that gave the Tar Heels an 80-70 victory. It was the kind of finish that gave the Tar Heels confidence that they could succeed, even without Paige.
His return will be welcome, though. In Paige’s absence, Berry and Theo Pinson, two sophomores, have started in the backcourt. Williams expects Paige’s return to help the team in a variety of ways.
“He’s our best player, (and) our best defensive player, and that’s what everybody forgets,” Williams said. “And I think that we’ve got to get a lot better defensively than the way we played the first six games.
“So I think that’ll help us, and his intensity level helps raise everybody else’s level, too, and that’s something that we need to have at a higher level on a more consistent basis.”
Wake Forest at Rutgers, late
Clemson at Minnesota, late
Michigan at N.C. State, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Northwestern at Virginia Tech, 7 p.m., ESPNU
Virginia at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Miami at Nebraska, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Purdue at Pittsburgh, 9 p.m., ESPN2
Maryland at North Carolina, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
Penn State at Boston College, 7:15 p.m., ESPNU
Louisville at Michigan State, 7:15 p.m., ESPN
Wisconsin at Syracuse, 7:15 p.m., ESPN2
Indiana at Duke, 9:15 p.m., ESPN
Notre Dame at Illinois, 9:15 p.m., ESPN2
Florida State at Iowa, 9:15 p.m., ESPNU