This time a year ago there was a lot of uncertainty at North Carolina amid those stressful months leading into the college basketball season.
The Tar Heels didn’t yet know the status of P.J. Hairston, then their best player. They didn’t know who might emerge in his absence.
Marcus Paige felt ready and confident, but he had yet to prove himself. He spent the next five months proving himself over and over again.
Now one of the most decorated players in the country entering the 2014-15 season, Paige might find it difficult to escape himself. If he goes to a bookstore, for instance, he’d likely find himself staring back while he walked past the magazine rack. At home, watching TV, he might hear the pundits lauding him.
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Paige, the Tar Heels’ junior point guard, is the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, a preseason first-team All-American and the public face of one of the nation’s most storied college basketball programs. It’s a role that comes with pressure, expectations and no shortage of stress.
No matter, though. Ask Paige about what this is all like – the attention and accolades, and the responsibility that comes with it – and he might smile and say it’s “cool,” as he did recently while he spoke about the upcoming season before a practice at the Smith Center.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thought it was really cool,” Paige said. “But I try not to worry about it too much. Because we still have to do a lot as a team in order for any of that success for myself individually to happen.
“So it just makes me focus even more on our team goals and hopefully putting together a season that will be pretty memorable.”
For the first time since Paige arrived at UNC in 2012, the Tar Heels appear to have a chance to – as he described it – do something memorable. Two years ago, during his freshman season, UNC was still learning how to overcome the loss of four players who were selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
Last season, the drama surrounding Hairston, who eventually lost his eligibility because of a publicized impermissible benefits case, followed the Tar Heels throughout the season. Hairston’s absence created a large void in the offense, one Paige filled admirably.
Even so, though, for the second consecutive year the Tar Heels didn’t advance past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Those results have weighed heavily on Paige, as has the thought that during his time at UNC the Tar Heels haven’t won anything, he said, of significant importance.
There has been no ACC regular-season or tournament championship. No trip to the Final Four or even the Sweet 16. When former UNC players returned during the summer, as they always do, to work out and play pick-up games, Paige felt a bit like an outsider in some ways. Those guys had won. He hadn’t.
“You’ve got to have something worth bragging or arguing about when you come back and you are in Chapel Hill with some of your best friends that played here,” he said. “I mean, everybody has basically won something, so you have to bring something to the table of your own.
“And we haven’t really won anything so far.”
Post players need to contribute
Whether the Tar Heels win this season will depend on whether one, or both, of their starting post players, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, becomes the kind of consistent scorer coach Roy Williams has had on his other great UNC teams. It will depend on whether freshman forward Justin Jackson is as good throughout the season has he has been during practice and exhibitions.
UNC’s success will depend on how role players, like Isaiah Hicks, develop. And on whether it can overcome its perceived weaknesses of perimeter shooting and interior defense.
Most of all, though, it might depend most on Paige. The parts appear to be in place for the Tar Heels to do something memorable – Paige’s word – but they might only be as good, or great, as Paige is individually. Williams, in his 12th season at UNC, put it like this:
“I hope we get exactly what we got out of him last year – (but) a little bit better.”
A season ago Paige averaged 17.5 points and frequently carried his team offensively. There were the 32 points he scored in an early victory against Louisville, and the 35 – two of them the winning points at the buzzer – he scored in that overtime victory at N.C. State.
Equally important, Paige became a calming force in a season of turmoil. His teammates looked to him for leadership and production and he often delivered, especially in the second halves of games when the Tar Heels most needed those things.
“If they were all like Marcus, I would pay our administration to let me coach instead of them pay me,” Williams said. “He’s a true leader on the court. He understands, he came from a coaching family. I mean, his mom coached in the (girls’ high school) state championship game in Iowa.
“So he’s sat at the table and listened to all the coach talk.”
Most successful point guards at any level are in some ways an extension of a head coach but Paige and Williams have developed a unique bond. They communicate “all the time,” Paige said, outside of practice, and they talk about a variety of things – often about maximizing the team’s potential.
This season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Paige’s scoring numbers dipped while he excelled in other, less noticeable areas. Paige had to score a lot a season ago because UNC had no other proven option. Even Paige was unproven, as a scorer in college, at least.
Now the Tar Heels appear to have more options, what with Johnson and Meeks back, and Jackson, and a bench that looks as deep as any UNC has had in a while. There could be – should be, perhaps – less pressure on Paige to carry the offense game in and game out.
“He does facilitate it well but at the same time, we still need him to score the ball,” said Johnson, who arrived at UNC in the same incoming freshman class as Paige. “Because when he’s scoring, then the eyes are on him, then people are going to double team him and leave somebody else open.”
‘That’s one true gym rat’
When Johnson attended the ACC’s annual preseason basketball media day event in Charlotte, someone asked him what makes Paige so special. Johnson answered with a somewhat cliché description of Paige being a “gym rat.”
Pressed on it, Johnson defended the description: “That’s one true gym rat,” he said.
Even when Paige isn’t in a gym, he might be watching events that have taken place inside of one. He’s known for his film study, and for watching an NBA game the way a coach or a television analyst – a career Paige is interested in pursuing, one day – might.
Paige likes to figure out plays before they happen, and as they happen. He studies where players are on the court, and where they need to be, the way a chess player might think several moves ahead. A second-team Academic All-American a season ago, Paige has always been that cerebral and studious.
“Now I’m paying attention more to other guys and seeing how our team kind of meshes in certain situations,” he said. “So I feel like the more you start to know and become comfortable with your own game, the more you can pay attention in other ways to help the team, or other ways to learn something in practice.
“And so it’s just more like I’m seeing the big picture as you get older.”
Paige understands that he won’t completely define UNC’s success by himself, on his own. Johnson and Meeks will have to be more consistent than they’ve been. The Tar Heels will have to receive significant contributions from their freshmen. Free throws, which at times doomed UNC last season, can’t be the same kind of problem.
Paige knows, too, that ultimately this is his team, and his time.
“There’s definitely more pressure,” he said. “But I put a lot of pressure on myself, anyway. So that’s not any different.”