North Carolina plays at N.C. State on Wednesday night, and so Marcus Paige’s teammates have provided him with reminders of what he’s done there the past two seasons.
“You know, we joke around with him,” Justin Jackson, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward, said Tuesday when he thought about Paige’s success in Raleigh. “Because it seems like that’s his home.”
It seems, at least, that Paige, UNC’s senior guard, loves playing at PNC Arena. In UNC’s memorable 85-84 overtime victory there two years ago, Paige scored 35 points – two of them at the buzzer to give the Tar Heels the victory.
Last year, during another close game – an 81-79 UNC victory – Paige finished with 23 points and made all five of his 3-point attempts. Paige has said that he likes the basketball, made by Wilson, that N.C. State uses. The always-hostile environment that awaits UNC at PNC Arena doesn’t bother him, either.
“Something about that Wilson ball and that arena, his eyes light up,” Jackson said.
If it happens again Wednesday, on Paige’s final road game against the Wolfpack, it’d be more than the continuation of a two-year trend. It’d be a positive development for Paige, who has experienced an uneven senior season that at its best has included a 30-point performance at Florida State but at its worst has included a miserable shooting slump.
Between those extremes, Paige has tried to find consistency and comfort at shooting guard, which is not his natural position. There have been games in which Paige has been as productive as he was during his memorable sophomore season, and moments – but consistency has been elusive.
Paige broke out of a slump with a strong performance, albeit in defeat, at Notre Dame on Feb. 7. And yet he has been quiet offensively again during UNC’s past two games. He finished both of them – a humbling loss against Duke and a dominant victory against Miami – with seven points.
Paige’s struggles have worn on him at times, but he was in better spirits Saturday after that 96-71 victory against Miami – and not just because the Tar Heels won. Against Miami, Paige played more point guard, his natural position, than he had in any game this season.
“I think that helped me out a lot,” Paige said Saturday. “I didn’t shoot the ball well today or anything, but I felt like a completely different player today, being able to have the ball in my hands and make some plays and pitch the ball ahead in transition. It was weird. It felt good.”
Paige primarily played point guard during his first three seasons, and entering this season, UNC’s plan was for him to split his time between there and shooting guard. Then Paige broke a bone in his hand days before the start of the season and missed UNC’s first six games.
By the time he came back, Joel Berry had entrenched himself into the starting point guard position, and Paige has mostly remained at shooting guard.
At times, Paige has had difficulty finding his rhythm on offense. Playing for long stretches without the ball in his hands has been an adjustment. The parts of the game against Miami when he was at point guard, then, felt a little like old times.
“It looked like he was just kind of playing freely a little bit more,” Jackson said. “Like he was kind of back in his comfort zone just a little bit.”
You don’t have to be the point guard to be the guy that the coach wants to handle the ball.
UNC coach Roy Williams
UNC coach Roy Williams, though, downplayed the significance of Paige’s increased minutes at point guard. Williams on Tuesday said he could tell “a little bit” of a difference in Paige’s comfort level when he was running the offense instead of playing off the ball.
“But again – why did he spend so much time at the point guard?” Williams asked. “Joel Berry was in foul trouble. He only played 18 minutes. So it’s not just like, ‘Well Ol’ Roy figured out how to do this.’”
Williams said he had no plans to “do anything to change what we have.” Which means that Berry will remain the starter at point guard and Paige at shooting guard.
Even so, Williams acknowledged that finding more time for Paige at point guard would be “a priority.”
But, he said, “Is it going to be my main priority? No.”
“You don’t have to be the point guard to be the guy that the coach wants to handle the ball,” Williams said. “And I’ve said that since day one. But I like (Paige) at the point guard. But Joel’s doing some good things, too.”
UNC’s hope is that Paige finds consistent success – whether he’s directing the offense at point guard or playing off the ball, as he has done the majority of the season. Approaching March it seems especially important for UNC that Paige plays to his potential. Now comes a rivalry game in an environment that in each of the past two years has brought out his best.