When Roy Williams singled out his freshman point guard, Marcus Paige, in February of last year, most of the people in the room snickered. Williams bestowed some of his highest praise on Paige, calling him a "tough little nut."
It was a familiar comment to those who have followed Williams in his ten-season tenure as Carolina's head coach. They recognized it as a compliment.
The intended recipient of the praise, however, wasn't quite as sure. When the comment was relayed to him in the Tar Heel locker room, he reacted as if he was someone being set up on a blind date with someone described as having "a great personality."
"I really wasn't sure how to take it," Paige says now. "Whenever you hear the 'little' nickname, you're not sure if he's joking on me."
It actually took another week or so before Paige fully accepted the comment as a positive. Apparently, in Iowa they don't have tough little nuts.
"I eventually figured out that he was complimenting me instead of insulting me," Paige says. "What made me realize that was that he referenced me being tough in a couple of other situations when just the team was around, or in practice."
That put him in the same exclusive category with Tar Heels like Ty Lawson, Wes Miller and the patron saint of Carolina tough little nuts, Raymond Felton. Looking back through Williams's coaching career, it's fairly clear which players earn the title. It's not usually the best player on the team. Paul Pierce, for example, would not have been a tough little nut, even though he was plenty tough. Aaron Miles, however, a guard on Williams's last Jayhawk team, was described several times that way by his head coach.
Rashad McCants? Great shooter, valuable offensive player...not a tough little nut. Harrison Barnes? You want him taking the last shot, can relish his 40-point performance in the ACC Tournament...but not a tough little nut. Danny Green? More likely to be described as "a little wacko" than a tough little nut.
Big men, of course, need not apply for the distinction. Tyler Hansbrough was one of the toughest players in Tar Heel history, but never once was described as a "tough little nut" by Williams. The very definition of "little" seems to exclude anyone who has ever scored with a hook shot.
If there's ever been someone who defines the term, it's Felton, who is in the discussion for the toughest competitor of the Williams era. But even he wasn't quite sure what message his head coach was trying to convey.
"When I first heard it, I kind of looked at him like, 'What are you saying?'" Felton says. "But I eventually figured out why he was saying it and that he didn't mean any harm by it."
Far from it. In fact, it's not hard to imagine that "tough little nut" is how Williams would have liked to have heard himself described as a player. There's a physical component to the description-the ability to take some pain without complaint or play longer and harder than teammates (Felton's 34.6 minutes per game during the 2003-04 season are the most by any Carolina player during the Williams era).
But there's also an intangible quality, the willingness to take shots that might make other players hesitate. Felton holds perhaps the signature shot of the Williams era in that category. In the 2005 national championship game, with Illinois on a 10-0 run over a nearly three-minute stretch, Carolina had the ball in a game tied at 65.
Tough Illini defense melted 20 seconds off the shot clock, and Felton ended up with the ball far out on the left wing. As Billy Packer announced to a nationwide CBS audience, Felton was being guarded by "the shut-down man," Deron Williams, and he also had Illinois guard and Wooden Award finalist Dee Brown flying at him.
No bother. Felton simply used a ball screen and pulled up for a three-pointer with 13 seconds still left on the shot clock. He swished it, giving the Tar Heels a 68-65 lead. Then, with less than a minute remaining, he had a key steal to thwart an Illinois possession. Felton wrapped up his championship performance by making three of four free throws in the final 30 seconds as Carolina earned a 75-70 win.
"A tough little nut is someone who is tough, who doesn't complain no matter what happens," Felton says. "If you're playing pickup, someone might foul him and he doesn't say anything, he just goes downcourt. He takes blame for stuff when it's not his fault. I see all of that in Marcus. He's a prime example of a good leader and he's going to be big for this team this year.
"I like to think that I have that toughness in myself, so I think that makes it easier to recognize in another person. You can't coach it or teach it. It has to come from within, and ever since I've known Marcus, he has been that way. He's quiet, but he's a naturally tough player."
Paige hasn't had the opportunity yet to make indelible, championship-winning plays on a big stage. But think back on his freshman season and you can see some Felton-esque characteristics. In the game against Florida State in Tallahassee, a victory that several Tar Heels have called the key to the 2012-13 season, Paige didn't have a spectacular stat line--he scored just eight points and collected four assists to go with five turnovers.
But part of what makes someone a tough little nut is the ability to forget about an otherwise average performance when the decisive minutes begin. With Carolina up by three, Jackson Simmons committed a turnover near midcourt. It looked like an easy hoop for FSU's Terrance Shannon, but Paige didn't give up on the play, ran Shannon down, and swiped the ball near the Seminole hoop. The freshman then drained a couple of key free throws with 11 seconds left, and the Tar Heels held on for a 77-72 win.
"To me, what Coach Williams means when he talks about being a tough little nut is someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to win," Paige says. "You have to be willing to step in and take a charge, or do things someone at your position might not usually do. I see that in Raymond all the time when we're playing pickup. He'll go in and box out a big guy. He mixes it up, and that's his mentality. I'm still developing that. Diving on the floor for loose balls or any type of effort or hustle play is what makes someone a tough little nut."
Sometimes it takes some of those hustle plays to unlock the more noticeable plays. Paige struggled with his shooting through the first half of his freshman year, and he was torched by NC State's Lorenzo Brown in the pair's first meeting in Raleigh. But he was determined for the second matchup to be different, telling his teammates, "This is going to be a different game."
It was, as Paige scored 14 points and handed out eight assists with zero turnovers when the two teams met again, this time in Chapel Hill. And by the time the postseason arrived, Paige had located his shooting stroke, and a more aggressive offensive approach followed. That's how he came to have the ball with less than 45 seconds remaining in the ACC Tournament semifinals against Maryland.
Never hesitating, Paige--a lefty--drove the ball on the right side of the floor, then somehow guided in a floater over the outstretched arms of seven-footer Alex Len.
The freshman would say after the game that he'd been practicing that shot in recent weeks, but it's hard to imagine that he had a spare seven-footer sitting around to provide the defense for the shot.
"You have to continue to do what you do best one hundred percent of the time," Paige says. "The ACC is so good, and if you can get one extra possession for your team, that can win the game."
Sounds like something Williams might say. He tends to be at his happiest when he's got a roster of players willing to do exactly what Paige described. Think back to the 2005-06 season, when everyone told Williams and the Tar Heels they could never have much success after losing four players early to the NBA Draft. Even today, the coach calls that "some of the most fun I've ever had coaching a team."
He has a similar opportunity this season, with a loaded nonconference schedule that will have his team as the underdog in at least two or three early-season games (a possible matchup with Louisville, a road trip to Michigan State and a home date with Kentucky). If the team could take on Paige's personality, it sounds like Williams would be a very happy head coach.
"Marcus is competitive and he's not afraid," Williams said. "He's willing to take and make a big-time play. The bigger the game, it doesn't bother him. He plays with such a competitiveness that when the game is on the line, it's a natural feeling for him, because he can raise his level of play even more. I think and hope we'll see even more of those big plays from him this year."
And in some welcome news for both Tar Heel fans and their coach, there is another. Paige, now a wizened veteran who understands his Williams-ology, thinks this year's roster will have a pair of tough little nuts.
"Nate (Britt) is really tough," Paige says of the freshman. "Even in conditioning, you can see that he doesn't back down. You can tell he has the qualities you want your point guard to have, and he's a great teammate. Being a tough little not myself, I can comment on this: I guarantee he will get the tough little nut label from Coach Williams at some point in the next year."
Adam Lucas is a GoHeels columnist and the editor of CAROLINA.