Some of his North Carolina teammates have approached Marcus Paige in recent days with words of encouragement, and there they were again on Wednesday night reminding Paige of things he already knew – that eventually his shots would fall, that he’d be fine.
Not that Paige wanted to hear it, or needed to hear it.
“You can definitely see the frustration level because some guys are trying to lift him up but he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m fine, I’m fine – I’m in a little slump, I’ll be all right,’” Brice Johnson, the senior forward, said. “You can see the frustration on his face sometimes.
“But he tries to just let it go and just keep playing.”
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Is there anything else Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, can do? Aside from keep playing, and keep shooting, and keep the faith that, eventually, the worst slump of his collegiate career will be over?
During UNC’s 83-68 victory against Wake Forest on Wednesday night, Paige missed his first seven shots from the field and finished 1-for-8 only after a layup hugged the rim before falling through. He said he was “surprised” that it fell, and given recent events it was an appropriate reaction.
Paige’s shooting struggles against Wake came after he made one of his nine attempts from the field in a victory against N.C. State on Jan. 16. Which came after he made one of his eight attempts from the field in a victory at Syracuse on Jan. 9.
Paige is 3-for-25 from the field, and 1-for-17 from behind the 3-point line in the past three games. The numbers are stunning given Paige’s overall success during his time at UNC, and Paige doesn’t quite know what to make of a most unusual sight: his shots bouncing off the rim time after time.
“They all felt good,” Paige said of his misses against Wake Forest. “Except for the last three (pointer) I took was a little off to the left. The first four, I mean, they looked pretty close to going in to me.”
Paige during his years at UNC has been a reporter’s dream. He comes out and talks after every game. He stays late to answer every question. And he answers questions in a way a television studio analyst might, with thoughtful, measured responses full of context and insight.
If you need someone to explain why the Tar Heels handled a play a certain way, Paige is the one who can best explain it. Or someone to describe why something worked – or didn’t – Paige can describe it in a way that makes sense.
There’s little sense to be made out of 3-for-25 and 1-for-17, though. And yet Paige is trying to make sense of it. At one point on Wednesday night, in response to a question, he said, “I’m a thinker,” and his shooting struggles have given him plenty to think about.
The questions kept coming for him after his second consecutive game without a 3-pointer. Paige during his sophomore and junior seasons had never gone more than one game without a 3. Entering the season he’d only played in two games the past two seasons without making a 3.
And now he has done that twice in the past two games. So this is new, as are the questions like the ones he tried to answer after the victory against Wake Forest.
Against Wake, was Paige surprised to see that last layup go in, the way his night had gone?
“Yeah, I was surprised, honestly,” he said.
Is it easier for him to dismiss the shooting slump given the success he’s had to this point?
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, as long as we win I’m fine. I’ll be ready when I’m needed to make shots. Tonight they didn’t need me to make very many shots. I know we only shot like 27 percent in the second half. We just played better than them tonight. So I’m not too worried about it.”
Was this kind of prolonged slump new territory, mentally, for Paige? He said it wasn’t.
“My sophomore year, which a lot of people consider the best basketball I’ve played since I’ve been here, started off the ACC play, I think at Wake Forest and home against Miami, I think I was 1 for 8 and then 1 for 9 in those two games back to back, or 2 for 15 total or something like that,” he said. “So it’s happened before, and I think I did OK at the end of that season. That’s just the way it goes.”
Does he think about these sort of troubles and spend time over-analyzing them?
“I’m a thinker,” Paige said. “I think a lot. But I’m still not mad that I’m missing shots. I’m going to make shots. Last game I was a little upset – I got back-doored one time. I missed a box out. And stuff like that, I can’t accept. Like tonight, I’m cool because I had a pretty good game defensively.
“Didn’t have any turnovers. We won, so I’m not tripping about any of that. It’s just when I know I can do things and be a consistent guy and I miss a couple of those plays, like I did in the State game, that’s what I was more mad about.”
And what about his practice routine? Would the slump cause him to change any of it?
“No,” he said, “I’ve been shooting the ball phenomenally well in my daily routine. … I’ve gotten extra shots up. That’s what it is. I mean, I stick to the script. When I’m shooting well, I still do the same routine. When I’m shooting poorly, I still stick to that.
“And I’m confident, and I trust the work that I’ve put in my entire life. So it’s just an ebb and flow.”
An ebb and flow. It wasn’t too long ago that Paige made five of his nine 3-point attempts and scored 30 points in a victory at Florida State. Or when he made seven of his 14 3-point attempts in back-to-back games earlier this season against Texas and Tulane.
And now there’s this. Roy Williams, the UNC coach, can’t really explain it.
“I guess they pay me a lot of money to say, ‘I don’t know,’” he said. “But I’ve never had a player that I’ve had more confidence in in my entire life than Marcus Paige but the ball’s not going in the basket right now.”
A few moments later Williams went into full-on Ol’ Roy mode and said, presumably joking, that he’d find a crystal ball and a wig and some incense – “is that what it is, the smoke stuff?” he asked – and “go chant something” in hopes of snapping Paige out of his slump.
Paige’s teammates have taken a more modest approach. They’ve tried to “lift him up,” as Johnson put it, though Paige hasn’t wanted to hear much of it. He knows the shots will start falling again, sooner or later, but his wait continues.