by Turner Walston
It didn’t take long for Marcus Paige to decide he’d return for another season in Chapel Hill. The Iowa guard had a breakout sophomore season, leading the Tar Heels in scoring (17.5 points per game) and assists (4.2 per game) and basically being the player you wanted to have the ball in crunch time. Through two seasons, Paige has already done enough (he earned second-team All-America honors from The Sporting News) for his jersey to hang from the rafters. So it would have been perfectly understandable if he’d decided to make the jump to the next level. He’d be wowing crowds in Las Vegas right now rather than holding a summer press conference at the Smith Center. But for Paige, there was more work to do in Carolina blue.
“There are so many factors that go into it, but for me the vast majority of those pushed me to stay in college,” he said last week. “Physically maturing, wanting to be a little bit more successful down in March and April, trying to hang a banner and win more, and also just that I enjoy my teammates a lot. Everything just made sense for me to come back.”
So he did. Paige is the clear leader for the 2014-15 Tar Heels, a group that, while still young, has its share of experience and more than enough talent to compete with the nation’s best teams next season. Carolina loses nearly a third of its scoring with the graduation of Leslie McDonald and the departure of James Michael McAdoo, but Paige has the ability to elevate the play of those around him. He believes the Tar Heels won’t have to look far to find scoring. “I think there are guys that are ready to make leaps, especially offensively,” he said. Paige mentions J.P. Tokoto, who knows he’s a slasher with a mid-range jumper and not really a three-point shooter. He points to Kennedy Meeks, who’s slimmer and better conditioned for the grind of college basketball, and who displayed flashes of brilliance late in the season (23 points at Florida State). After a year as a spark plug sixth man, Brice Johnson is ready to step into the starting power forward role, Paige said. “I think we won’t have a problem replacing that scoring, and defensively I think we’ll also be better,” Paige said. “That means a lot of good things.”
Oh, and the Tar Heels still have Paige. Last summer, he worked on moving without the ball, coming off screens to take shots. That work paid off, as when he found space, Paige was able to shoot with confidence (and with his coaches’ confidence). This year, he’s concentrated on his individual offense, creating shots for himself and extending his three-point range. Not one to rest on his accomplishments, Paige is becoming a more dynamic player. He knows that other teams have film on him; he knows he has to get better. “I understand that defenses might try to do different things to me this upcoming year,” he said. “So (I’m) just working on being able to do more things and to be more of a dynamic player when the ball’s in my hands. That will help me and help the team when we get into late-clock situations and we need to create a shot; we don’t always have to have a pick and roll, we’ll just have other options from myself.”
Roy Williams leaned on Paige to keep the team in games, to give the Tar Heels a chance to win, and Paige was happy to do the heavy lifting. But it took a toll on his body. Paige said he lost about ten pounds over the course of the season. He’s working on his conditioning to be able to play effectively even when he’s playing so many minutes. “It was a long, exhausting year (last year), but hopefully being a year older, I’ll be able to handle that a little bit better,” he said. “But I don’t think I did a horrible job of it this past year.”
He didn’t. In fact, Paige was often better in the second half of games than he was in the first. ‘Second-Half Marcus’ became a theme of the conference slate, as in “Just wait until ‘Second-Half Marcus’ shows up.” With the game on the line, Paige wanted the ball in his hands (and so did fans). At N.C. State, he scored 31 of his 35 points in the second half or overtime, as he and T.J. Warren went back and forth in an epic scoring display. He can’t explain the first-half futility nearly as well as he can explain the second-half success. “In the second half, the games will be tight that’s when the game’s won and lost, so the ball will be in my hands more and I’ll be making more plays,” Paige said. “The intensity level of the game allows you to compete at a higher level. But in terms of why I shot so poorly, just wasn’t as effective in the first half, honestly I could not tell you why that happened, but I don’t expect it to happen again this year.”
One thing that could help Second-Half Marcus show up a bit earlier is increased depth at the point guard position. Sophomore Nate Britt will show off a better jumper (he’s switched from shooting with this left hand to his right), and freshman Joel Berry is confident and ready to compete. Though Paige is a point guard, he’s capable and willing to play off the ball. Not having to do so much ball-handling early could keep Paige fresher. And don’t be surprised to see Paige, Britt and Berry in the game all at once. One of Williams’ favorite Kansas teams featured 6’4 Kirk Hinrich, 6’1 Aaron Miles and 6’1 Jeff Boschee in the starting lineup. “He pulls the ‘Hinrich Boschee Miles’ card a lot,” Paige said. “And Hinrich’s my idol, so I talked to him about that, and he really liked that team.” The Tar Heels have shown off some multiple-guard sets in summer practice, so Paige expects them to be implemented more often next season.
Without McAdoo and McDonald, and with three freshmen and the returning Stilman White, the Tar Heels will look a little bit different in 2014-15. Though the Tar Heels exited the NCAA Tournament in the Round of 32 in March, the eyes of the nation are starting to turn toward Chapel Hill, given the returning core and the potential seen in these young players a year ago.
Last year, Carolina knocked off the top four teams in the AP preseason Top 25. Paige thinks the team can prove that they belong in those conversations. “From what I see, and what I know about other teams, I don’t think there’s any team that I’m looking at like we can’t beat them or we don’t have the talent to match up with them,” he said. “We’ll definitely have our fair share of tests with our schedule, but I think that’ll help us out and I really think we are a legitimate Final Four contender if we can put all the pieces together.”
Paige is nothing if not confident. “People being excited of our basketball here is a good thing. And I think we’re going to prove to a lot of people that they have good reason to be excited.”