There will come a time during the next six months when it will all be over. When Marcus Paige will walk off of Franklin Street and into Sutton’s for lunch for the final time as a college student, and when he’ll walk through Carroll Hall for the final time before graduation.
There will come a time when he’ll play his final game for North Carolina in the Smith Center and when he’ll play for the final time in a Tar Heels jersey. And then that will be it, four seasons come and gone in a flash. Or an eternity, in today’s college basketball.
Paige enters his senior season at UNC as something of an artifact – a relic from another era. He has been a three-year starter and an all-ACC player at one of the most historically successful programs in the country. Which is to say, he has been an anomaly.
The same could be said for the rest of Paige’s team. That it’s a throwback to a different time. That it’s loaded with four-year players there to play college basketball instead of using it to head early to the NBA.
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That it’s a rarity in this one-and-done age of college basketball, this here-today-gone-tomorrow era that has left coach Roy Williams to equate the college game with a stopover at a Greyhound station, on the way to somewhere else as quickly as possible.
“It used to be a thrill for kids to get a college scholarship offer,” Williams said recently with a sense of lamentation. “And now we are a bus stop, at our level. … there’s no question that you motivate and (get) them to focus a little differently now than you did 20 years ago.
“Because now every kid thinks he’s going to play in the NBA, and most times his mother and father and high school coach and summer league coach, all those guys (think) the same thing.”
It might follow then that Williams prefers the kind of team he has: three seniors, two of whom start; three juniors, one of whom starts while the others play meaningful reserve roles; three sophomores, two of whom are likely to be regular starters; and two freshmen, both of whom are likely to stay a while.
Happy to play college ball
This used to be an ordinary team construct, the one at UNC this season.
There’s Paige, the All-American candidate at point guard who is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season while recovering from a broken hand. And Brice Johnson, another senior all-ACC candidate at forward. And Kennedy Meeks, the junior center. And Justin Jackson, a sophomore who has the potential to become one of the best players in the country.
What makes them unique in this era is this: They all played prominent roles a season ago at the second-most victorious college program in history. And imagine this: They’re all back again this season – and even happy, apparently, to still be in college instead of starting a professional career, which is something former teammate J.P. Tokoto decided to do.
Tokoto’s departure is why UNC returns four starters instead of five. He left after a junior season in which he averaged 8.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game – solid but unspectacular numbers that convinced him, in part, that he could do more somewhere else.
“A youngster like J.P., that’s truly what he wanted to do,” Williams said. “College, he didn’t enjoy college nearly as much as he enjoyed dreaming about being in the NBA.”
Which isn’t to say that Paige, Johnson, Jackson, Meeks and UNC’s other returning players don’t spend time dreaming of the NBA. It’s an aspiration for all of them. But so is taking advantage of these unique circumstances – a high-profile team reliant on upperclassman and experience.
There is a tradeoff. The teams at Kentucky in recent years, and the one at Duke a season ago, might have been some of the most talented in college basketball history. They were especially young teams, and their players hadn’t spent much time together, but their ability was never in question.
It’d be weird to come back and not see yourself as a part of one of these team accomplishments that hang around the gym. So I feel like we kind of need to (win a championship). I know I need to, otherwise I’m going to drive myself crazy after I graduate.
UNC’s Marcus Paige
Those teams, the one-and-done-laden teams at Kentucky the past few years, and the one last season at Duke, where three freshmen led the Blue Devils to a national championship before leaving school, had to answer this question: Could all that talent come together to form a cohesive team?
And it’s something of the opposite at UNC. These Tar Heels have played together for a while. Paige and Johnson lived together with a couple of non-basketball players last year. They all know each other’s habits, how they practice, what it’s like to room together. On the court, they know their strengths and weaknesses.
But do they know they’re good enough? UNC enters the season ranked No. 1, but that’s more reflective of the transient nature of the sport – and the fact that UNC basically has everyone back – than what the Tar Heels have done in the past, the highlight of which would be a run last season to an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
There, UNC lost 79-72 to a Wisconsin team that in some ways has reminded the Tar Heels of themselves. The Badgers were older, more experienced, and led by three seniors (Frank Kaminsky, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser), a junior (Sam Dekker) and a couple of sophomores.
“You can say we’re a team like Wisconsin – they had a lot of experience,” said Johnson, UNC’s 6-foot-11 power forward. “Those guys, they (knew) what to expect and they (knew) what to do to be able to get to whatever points in the season they want to get to.
“Because (they’d) been through it all, as you can say, over the past few years.”
Now the Tar Heels are the team that has been through it all. The senior class, for one, experienced relatively underwhelming finishes during its freshman and sophomore seasons, both of which ended in the NCAA tournament round of 32.
UNC’s older players have endured off-court drama – the P.J. Hairston saga of 2013 – and they’ve all played amid the black cloud of an NCAA investigation. There’s also been on-court drama in recent years – the close losses and what-could-have-beens. UNC is driven by some of that.
The Tar Heels last season felt the euphoria of being in position to win an ACC championship – they led Notre Dame by nine points in the second half of the title game. And they felt the pain that came while that opportunity slipped away in a 90-82 loss. That game was one of eight that UNC lost last season after holding a lead in the second half.
That’s the greatest question surrounding these Tar Heels: Are they tough enough to hold onto leads and finish games? Last season, they lost at Louisville after leading by 18 points in the second half, and lost in overtime at Duke after leading by 10 with less than four minutes to play.
“Finishing a couple of those games was the difference between being in a Final Four or having a one or two seed (in the NCAA tournament),” Paige said, “and being stuck where we were.”
Chance to be the best team
Chance to be the best team
UNC’s preseason ranking suggests it’s the favorite to win the national championship, though Williams has downplayed expectations relative to other seasons when he knew, without any doubt, that the Tar Heels were the best team in the country. He felt that way entering the 2008-09 season, which ended with a national championship. And he felt that way before UNC won the 2005 championship.
For Williams, there are more questions this season: Will Johnson and Meeks play to their potential, consistently, in the frontcourt? Will Jackson go from a freshman who showed All-ACC potential to a sophomore who fulfills that potential? Will UNC’s role players – especially Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson, who’s likely to start – become game-in, game-out difference makers?
If it all comes together, Williams has said, the Tar Heels have a chance to be the best team. But he’d like to see it happen first.
The intangibles, at least, are there. Paige has earned a place on the short list of Williams’ favorites over a Hall of Fame coaching career that has spanned parts of four decades. Johnson is another strong leader, as is fellow senior Joel James, who during the second half of last season became a reliable contributor off the bench in the post.
And then there’s the most delicate thing of all, the intangible that allows some teams to rise above their collective talent level and others to fail to reach their potential: chemistry. Duke established it, quickly, last season during its run to the national championship. And it’s strong, it appears, at UNC.
“We do everything together,” Jackson, the sophomore wing forward, said. “Whether it’s on the court, off the court. Whether it’s to go get something to eat, or go to the library – we always try to do something together.
“And having Marcus, Brice, Kennedy, Joel – guys like that to be our leaders, and captains, you know, I think they’re guys that everybody’s close with. Sometimes you have leaders and captains that aren’t really as close with everybody on the team as they should be.”
Even last year, after some of the Tar Heels’ most difficult defeats, Paige at times questioned the investment of his teammates. More often than not only one of them, though, appeared to be playing outside of the team construct – and that was Tokoto, who decided to leave after the season ended.
What UNC has back are the guys who wanted to remain. Lack of opportunity has something to do with it, Williams has said, though Paige and Johnson likely would have entered the NBA draft with better prospects than Tokoto, who was selected with the second-to-last pick of the second round.
“It’s good and bad,” Williams said of having a lot of returnees. “You know, nobody was beating their door down to try to get them to leave. You like those guys that people want them to leave and they decided they’re going to stay, that’s really a nice moment. But Marcus could have left.”
Instead Paige is back for more on a team that looks a lot like college basketball teams used to look, before freshmen came and went before casual fans ever had much of a chance to get to know them. The way UNC is constructed, with all the upperclassmen and the limited reliance on freshmen, is something of an accident, Williams has said.
It’s not as if he hasn’t been recruiting the one-and-done types. It’s just that they’ve gone elsewhere. And so UNC has what it has: an old-school roster led by four-year players who want to finish their season of lasts – last year in college, last time putting on the jersey – with a first.
That’d be a championship. Or championships. An ACC championship, which UNC hasn’t won since 2008. Or, even better, a national championship. Paige has said that anything other than ending the season in Houston, at the Final Four, would be a failure.
He has thought about coming back to Chapel Hill one day, after all of this over, and looking around and not seeing any reminder of what his teams accomplished. No championship banner or anything. He has one more season to change that.
“It’d be weird to come back,” Paige said, sitting in the Smith Center, “and not see yourself as a part of one of these team accomplishments that hang around the gym. So I feel like we kind of need to (win a championship). I know I need to, otherwise I’m going to drive myself crazy after I graduate.”