UNC guard Marcus Paige 'very close' to returning from injury

North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (5) shoots with his teammate prior to the Tar Heels’ game against Wofford on Wednesday.
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (5) shoots with his teammate prior to the Tar Heels’ game against Wofford on Wednesday. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina guard Marcus Paige on Monday night before the Tar Heels’ 80-69 victory against Northwestern went through his team's lay-up and shooting drills. He dribbled. He passed to teammates.

He did most everything he always does before games – and then he took his seat on the bench and missed his fifth consecutive game while recovering from a broken bone in his right hand. Paige's wait could soon end, though. He said on Monday night that he's “very close” to returning.

“The basketball part – the passing, catching, dribbling, all that stuff feels good now,” said Paige, who dressed out for the second consecutive game. “Now it's just a matter if (the hand) hits somebody or if I fall, is it in a good-enough place healing-wise to not be affected by that? …

“That's the thing that they're not 100 percent sure about that, so that's why I'm not playing.”

Paige, the senior point guard, appeared on numerous preseason All-American lists entering the season. He was named the ACC's preseason co-player of the year and, after playing through plantar fasciitis most of last season, he had been hoping for a healthy senior season.

Days before the season began, though, Paige fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand. The injury did not require surgery and UNC's medical staff anticipated that Paige would miss the first three to four weeks of the season – a timeline that is still in place, Paige said on Monday.

“If it was up to me, I'd be playing tomorrow,” said Paige, who for the past week has not been wearing a bandage on his hand. “But it's not up to me, it's up to those people above me – coach Williams and the doctors and stuff, so I'm just trying to be patient with it.

“But as soon as I get a couple more practices under my belt I'll be fine.”

An x-ray last week showed that the injury is healing properly, Paige said. And if the circumstances were different – if this were March instead of November and if the games were considerably more meaningful then Paige would be playing, Williams said.

“The bottom line is if we'd had to have him, we could have played him last week,” Williams said. “But we don't have to have him. We're trying to be very cautious.”

That hasn't made Paige's wait any easier. He was introduced before UNC's game at Northern Iowa on Saturday. UNC scheduled that game to give Paige, an Iowa native, a homecoming. With Paige watching from the bench the Tar Heels surrendered a 16-point second-half lead in an 71-67 loss.

Paige said he didn't attempt to lobby the coaching staff to play in that game. He said he understood “there's a bigger picture than playing in November.”

Like, for instance, playing in December. The Tar Heels on Dec. 1 play against No. 2 Maryland in Chapel Hill. The game is part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and since Paige's injury the Maryland game has seemed like a target date for his return.

How likely is it that Paige comes back for that game? He answered the question quickly on Monday.

“I would say in the 90s that I do play, percentage-wise,” Paige said. “In the odd chance that I disrupt the progress somehow in the next couple of days then I probably won't play. But it's going to be extremely difficult not be on that court December 1.”