North Carolina

UNC’s ‘odd couple’ Johnson and Paige primed for final NCAA tournament run

The first time Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson met, which has been about three and a half years ago now, Paige’s first thought went something like this: man, this guy is quiet.

“He just never spoke,” Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, said on Wednesday. “He was so quiet that I really didn’t have much thought at all. I was like, here’s this guy – he doesn’t speak. Like, I’ve got to live with this guy? This is going to be awkward.”

Johnson, the senior forward, was sitting a few feet away inside UNC’s locker room in PNC Arena, where the Tar Heels, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, will begin play on Thursday in the NCAA tournament against 16th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.

Johnson, whose week included an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a first-team All-American honor that ensures his No. 11 jersey will hang in the Smith Center rafters, wasn’t all that quiet on Wednesday. He was surrounded by TV cameras and smiling, laughing, soaking in the moment.

But when he first arrived at UNC that summer before his freshman season? Well that was a different story back then. For him and for Paige. Because Johnson’s first thought when he met Paige that summer was this: “He was definitely very quiet.”

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Neither Paige nor Johnson arrived on campus with much bravado. They were both quiet, both shy. Both didn’t have a lot to say, especially to each other, during their first weeks at UNC.

“I’m pretty sure when they first met, it was awkward,” Theo Pinson, the sophomore guard, said. “I bet you it was kind of awkward to see who was going to break the ice and talk first. If I could put a bet on it – I bet you it was Marcus.”

Pinson was right. Paige opened up first. Eventually Johnson followed.

And now they’re the best of friends – “always joined at the hip,” Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward, said.

Johnson and Paige arrived at UNC together. They’ll leave together. They’ve endured some of the same drama and same challenges together, and now they share similarly important roles on a team with national championship aspirations.

Johnson, the 6-foot-11 forward, is the first-team All-ACC player, the team’s leader in things that can be easily quantified – points, rebounds, number of screams after a dunk, perhaps. Paige, the 6-foot-1 guard, is UNC’s leader in more intangible ways – the one teammates turn to when they’re seeking guidance, the one coach Roy Williams turns to when he needs someone to provide some calm.

Odd triple

It hasn’t been the senior season Paige expected. He has missed more shots than he ever imagined, and endured miserable shooting slumps that have come and gone.

And yet, junior guard Nate Britt said, Paige has “remained confident the whole time.” Just like usual.

“Even if he might not have had confidence in himself, none of us could tell,” Britt said. “None of us could see that. I think that was huge for our team.”

Britt for the past several months has had the best perspective of all, perhaps, on the relationship Paige and Johnson share – and how that relationship translates to the basketball court. Johnson and Paige have lived with each other since their freshman season, and Britt moved in with them this year.

It’s just those three in their off-campus place – Britt and the “odd couple,” as Williams recently described Johnson and Paige. An accurate description – the odd couple – for Johnson and Paige? Britt thinks so.

“They are the odd couple,” Britt said with a laugh.

In fact, he threw Joel James, the reserve forward who is UNC’s other scholarship senior, into the mix, too.

“An odd triple,” Britt said with a smile.

Kind of weird

But yes, Britt said, Paige and Johnson are odder than usual and “super weird.”

Like how?

“Brice – like, there’s no explanation for anything that he does, ever,” Britt said. “And nothing seems to ever make sense. He’ll take the trash out at 10 o’clock at night and he won’t come back in the door for another two hours. And we’ll be like, what happened?

“And he’ll say, ‘Oh, I went to get something to eat.’ But he failed to mention that he’d take the trash out and then go out. So Brice disappears randomly. Both of them are extremely kind of weird in their own sense.”

Then there’s Paige, the perfectionist. He likes to give Johnson a hard time about his grammar. Or anything else, really.

Which, actually, isn’t that unique to his relationship with Johnson.

“Marcus likes to correct everyone about everything,” Britt said. “So being that he spends the most time around Brice he does it to him probably more than anyone else. It’s funny because my freshman year, you could see Brice get aggravated with Marcus and seem to be annoyed.

“But now he just brushes it off – it’s like, ‘Whatever,’ now.”

Lifetime bond

Paige gets Johnson with the grammar. Johnson gets Paige with the fake snakes. He left one near his chair in the locker room – a tried and true prank. It worked.

“He can be a smart butt to me sometimes but at the end of the day he’s my guy,” Johnson said.

It took them a little while to speak to each other at first but Paige and Johnson have established a bond that both players say will endure a lifetime. After UNC’s senior night victory against Syracuse, Paige became emotional addressing Johnson, publicly, about what Johnson and their friendship had meant.

And Williams’ moniker for the pair – the “odd couple” – makes sense in more ways than one given that it’s somewhat odd in this era of college basketball for two players of Paige and Johnson’s caliber to stick around for four years and develop this kind of a relationship.

But here they are, together for one final March run. The odd couple? Their teammates had different thoughts on Wednesday on what exactly Williams meant by describing Johnson and Paige that way.

“Two guys who you would not think could get along got along,” Pinson said.

Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard, said he didn’t see much oddness in Paige and Johnson’s relationship. Neither does Meeks, though he said they’re “always together.”

Johnson, at least, owned it.

“We’re very odd,” he said. “Very odd to say the least. We’re definitely one of a kind in our own ways. I’m kind of the quiet one, he’s a smart butt. We get along very well.

“We do feed off each other sometimes.”

No longer quiet

They’ll have to do that on Thursday, and beyond, for UNC to reach its potential – for the Tar Heels to make reality their goal of reaching the Final Four and winning the national championship.

The journey this season began four months ago, back in November. In many ways, though, it began three and a half years ago, when Johnson and Paige arrived at UNC the summer before their freshman season and both shared the same thought about each other: Who is this guy and why is he so quiet?

They’re not so quiet anymore. Johnson is known for his roars after dunks. Paige for offering a wise word in a tense moment.

UNC enters the NCAA tournament at its highest point. Berry, among the team’s most consistent players this season, was at his best during the ACC tournament. So, too, was the Tar Heels’ defense. And yet UNC might go as far as its odd couple, Johnson and Paige, will take the Tar Heels.

“There’s something to be said about that,” Paige said. “I think the way Joel’s playing has really become a huge difference in our team and us being able to elevate our game, because he’s the point guard. But yeah, we’re the senior leaders.

“We’ve been through it all.”

All, that is, except a deep NCAA tournament run. If UNC makes one it will start on Thursday, and it might last as long as its odd couple can keep it going.

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