Marcus Paige’s senior year hasn’t gone as planned. There’s no way around that at this point. The preseason co-player of the year in the ACC isn’t likely to make even third-team all-ACC, no matter what happens Saturday at Duke.
That reality hung over North Carolina’s senior night win over Syracuse on Monday, one reason why Roy Williams was so emotional. With the career Paige has had, he deserves better. And if all goes well over the next month, almost everything that’s happened in his senior year so far will be forgotten.
Win at Duke for the first time in his career, win the ACC tournament for the first time since 2008, get North Carolina back to the Final Four for the first time since the 2009 national title, and Paige’s senior slump will fade into the hazy past.
Every postseason carries with it the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to tell a new story. For Paige in particular, in the throes of what has quite unexpectedly become a disappointing senior season, it’s a chance to rewrite history entirely.
“I guess all that other stuff doesn’t matter until these next couple weeks,” Paige said Friday. “This is when the important stuff starts. You can completely change how your year is remembered.”
Paige’s fate is inextricably intertwined with that of the Tar Heels; they cannot play up to their considerable potential without Paige playing at his highest personal level. They have gotten this far, to the verge of the top seed in the ACC tournament, while carrying Paige along through the second half of the season.
To get farther, to get where this team needs to go, Paige has to lead the way. He may never get back to being the hair-trigger, Curry-eseque shooter he was as a sophomore, but there has to be a happy medium somewhere. North Carolina may not need him to score 20 points a night, but it certainly can’t stomach Paige going 0-for-6 from 3-point range as he did in the home loss to Duke.
Even in the win over Syracuse, as emotional and cathartic as it was, Paige was held to seven points, going 1-for-7 from 3-point range. The vast majority of the second half of the season has been like that, as a blip became a skid became a slump, to the point where the burden Paige is carrying has become nearly visible on the court.
It may be Paige’s preternatural introspection to blame. What makes him one of the best interviews in recent memory and allowed him to deliver a truly memorable senior speech on Monday, almost wistful in its celebration of his coaches and teammates, could account for his shocking regression this season.
Whether because his season started awkwardly because of his hand injury or because his confidence started to slide at midseason and continued to steamroll, Paige has been playing thoughtfully instead of instinctively. There are other factors at play – most notably the point-guard dynamic with Joel Berry, although Williams again dismissed that line of inquiry Friday – but Paige’s shooting issues start and end with him.
There’s no place like a game at Duke, with the inherent intensity of that rivalry environment and a championship on the line to boot, for Paige to get back to playing through his heart and hands instead of his head.
In his Senior Night speech, Paige repeated the phrase, “We’re not done” for emphasis. The Tar Heels still have it all left out there to accomplish. So does Paige.
After four long years at North Carolina, after everything he’s done, after everything his senior year hasn’t been, he still has a chance to write his own ending.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock