It was just like old times, in a way, at one point during a North Carolina practice on Tuesday: Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks all on the court together, running a drill, a player wearing a No. 5 running it alongside them.
For years that had been Marcus Paige’s number. It will hang high in the Smith Center, eventually, once they get around to putting it up there. Brice Johnson’s No. 11 will be in the rafters, too, whenever UNC’s new banners arrive, perhaps in a shipment including the one recognizing another Final Four.
For four years, Paige and Johnson had been constants, two players who helped shape the Tar Heels’ identity, the two players most often responsible for their success, or shortcomings. And now they’re gone, though their numbers aren’t.
“Obviously, we still have an 11 and 5,” Jackson said of freshman Tony Bradley, the new No. 5, and freshman Shea Rush, the new No. 11. “But not having Marcus and Brice in those numbers is weird.”
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That word kept coming up again and again on Tuesday during UNC’s annual basketball media day, where perhaps the most familiar question facing the Tar Heels was how they planned to fill the voids created by the departure of their two most familiar faces. Production is part of it.
Johnson and Paige a season ago combined to average nearly 30 points per game. They averaged nearly 13 rebounds between them, 10.4 of those belonging to Johnson, and 5.5 assists, nearly four of those belonging to Paige.
More than once on Tuesday, UNC coach Roy Williams reminisced about what Johnson did early last January at Florida State – those 39 points and 23 rebounds. More than once, Williams lauded Paige’s ability to make the perimeter shot, his uncanny knack for coming through in desperate situations.
Missing those guys
UNC lost its leading scorer and rebounder in Johnson, and perhaps its most important overall player in Paige. Their depth of their absence, though, goes beyond points and rebounds and clutch shots. It affects those they left behind in ways both big and small.
“I miss everything about them,” said Williams, whose team began practicing last month in preparation of the start of the season on Nov. 11 at Tulane. “Even Brice, and I stayed on his case probably harder than anybody I’ve ever coached. But on game nights, the sucker played.”
The Tar Heels ended last season on the other side of one of the most thrilling finishes in college basketball history. It doesn’t keep him up late at night, Williams said – the image of Kris Jenkins’ long 3-pointer going in as the final horn sounded, giving Villanova a victory in the national championship game.
No, Williams said he isn’t necessarily haunted by it. He spends more time thinking about this particular team, and how it will go on without the two players most responsible for creating the identity that led to so much success last year.
“I do miss those guys a great deal,” Williams said. “Because I walked out on the court, and with those two guys out there, I felt better immediately.”
Johnson and Paige had that sort of effect. The public saw it on game nights.
I do miss those guys a great deal. Because I walked out on the court, and with those two guys out there, I felt better immediately.
UNC coach Roy Williams on Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson
Their teammates saw it for years away from the cameras, in more private moments during practices or road trips. Those moments, at times, are just as instrumental in creating a team as ones during any game.
“That’s what a lot of people don’t realize,” Stilman White, the senior guard, said on Tuesday. “Is for all of us players, it’s not everything we do on the court that we all love the most, it’s everything – the road trips and all of the funny times in the locker room.”
The inside jokes
And with those two, Johnson and Paige, there were some funny moments. Like, for instance, that video that went viral before last season, the one when Paige’s teammates got him good with an old trick: the rubber snake in the locker. Everyone had a good laugh.
During an emotional senior night last year at the Smith Center, Paige and Johnson described each other as brothers. The bond they shared, meanwhile, extended to the rest of the team, drawing it closer.
Nate Britt, the senior guard, said he’d miss the “little inside jokes” that he shared with Paige and C.B. McGrath, the assistant coach, during practices. For three years those jokes had been accumulating.
White, finally a senior after a two-year Mormon mission after his freshman year, said he’d miss the “verbal banter” in practices with Paige. They’d trade some witty repartee, White said, given that Paige was “kind of a slick-minded kid.”
Britt, who played an important role as a reserve a season ago, will be expected to help fill the leadership void. White, who was a freshman during the 2011-12 season, could also contribute there, despite playing a limited on-court role.
Mostly, though, the burden will fall on the returnees who contributed the most last season. Players like Hicks, the senior forward, and Jackson, the junior wing forward, and Berry, the junior point guard who was most instrumental during UNC’s run to the ACC tournament championship last March.
“It’s guys like myself and Nate and Joel, just guys like that that kind have to kind of step into it,” Jackson said of the leadership vacuum created by the loss of Johnson and Paige. “Obviously we know that those guys, it hurts losing them. But we know that if guys like us step into it, I think we’ll be all right.”
At one point on Tuesday, White looked over at the freshmen wearing Paige’s and Johnson’s old numbers. White had been there, too, when he arrived on campus a long five years ago.
Paige and Johnson had been there themselves four years ago. Now their college years were already in the past, four years come and gone, and a new No. 5 and No. 11 were posing for pictures, checking themselves out in their new Carolina blue uniforms, the shipment just in from Nike.
“You know, they’ve all probably taken 50 selfies of themselves already, on Snapchat, sending out to everyone,” White said with a laugh. “They’re real proud of themselves right now, I can tell you that much.”
That was the cycle. Seniors giving way to freshmen. One class gone, a new one arrived.
Now the Tar Heels’ greatest question is how they fill the void left by the departed. The 30 missing points, the 13 rebounds – that’s one challenge of accounting for the loss of Paige and Johnson. Then there’s everything else, the intangibles that UNC will miss in ways difficult to quantify.