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Marcus Paige's comments hint at problems at UNC

North Carolina's Marcus Paige (5) passes as Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon defends at right during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Virginia won 75-64.
North Carolina's Marcus Paige (5) passes as Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon defends at right during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Virginia won 75-64. AP

Marcus Paige shared some strong words with his teammates – and with reporters – Monday night after North Carolina’s 75-64 loss against Virginia. I wrote a lot about them.

They’re worth revisiting.

He said:

“We can’t keep talking about change. We’ve got to have guys look in the mirror and decide they’re going to change, buy in, and then some good things will happen.”

And:

“It’s nothing we haven’t learned from earlier losses. You look at the Kentucky game, the Iowa game. It’s the same type of story. It is February, you know. The season’s rolling. Great teams at this time are meshing together. You don’t have to keep preaching effort, keep preaching buying in, not worrying about your individual self.”

And:

“I’m not going to sit here and call guys out but us as a whole, myself included, just has to do a better job of (doing) what (coach Roy Williams) says. I know buying in is a term people use a lot and it’s kind of cliché but when you do, when you invest and stop caring about yourself – I don’t care about how many rebounds, how many steals I got.

“I care about what I can do in the moment to help North Carolina play, to help my teammate, to get us the ball, to get us possession. That’s when things start clicking.”

Strong stuff. I asked if Paige felt there was a disconnect between Williams and the team, whether some guys just aren’t getting it.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said.

Part of this, it’s likely, can be attributed to the emotions that come with a difficult loss, and with the first losing streak of the season. The Tar Heels led Louisville by 18 points Saturday before losing in overtime, and they led Virginia at halftime before another second-half meltdown doomed them.

So there’s frustration, and undoubtedly Paige is feeling some of that.

You can’t conclude that all of what he said, though, is the byproduct of blowing off steam after a difficult loss. Paige hinted at some pretty significant problems on this team, and basically implied there are chemistry issues and some players simply aren’t heeding Williams’ message.

That would be troubling at any point, but it’s especially so now, in February.

I’ve covered just about every game this season (missed the Alabama-Birmingham game while in Detroit for the Quick Lane Bowl) and at least on the surface it doesn’t look like the Tar Heels have chemistry issues.

Clearly, though, something is off with these guys if Paige is saying there needs to be a better sense of buying in, and that some players need to forget about individual success and focus more on the team.

The question everyone wants to know, of course, is who was Paige talking about? It’s impossible to answer based on what we in the media get to see (nothing, beyond games) but there have been times when the Tar Heels’ body language could be better. Brice Johnson has had his head-hanging moments, and J.P. Tokoto, too, can seem frustrated at times.

That doesn’t say anything, of course, about their level of “buy-in.” Johnson and Tokoto have been instrumental to UNC’s success, when the Tar Heels have been successful. Both players, though, can be enigmatic.

Johnson seemed to turn a corner before finishing with just two points at Louisville. Tokoto had a single point – and one rebound – against Virginia.

Those are Paige’s classmates – all three are juniors – and the inconsistency has to be frustrating for everybody involved. To his credit, Johnson said Monday: “Everybody has to go and look and in the mirror, myself included, and ask yourself whether you’re playing as hard as you can or if you’re doing everything you can to help this team.”

Things change in a hurry. Late Saturday afternoon the Tar Heels were leading Louisville by 18 points. They seemed headed for their seventh consecutive victory and, perhaps, their most impressive win of the season.

Then everything fell apart, and did again in the second half Monday night. And here we are, with a lot of uncomfortable questions about effort and buying in and commitment.

Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter .

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