Something happened late in Carolina's 62-52 win over Maryland on Saturday: Marcus Paige grew up just a little bit.
It's not that Paige had played poorly recently. A questioner on last week's ACC teleconference made the mistake of asking Roy Williams if his point guard situation was settled. Williams's response made it clear the question didn't even exist in his mind.
"(Marcus) has started every game that he's been healthy enough to play," the head coach said. "My guess is he'll continue to. That position is not very unsettled."
It's not very unsettled because Paige has quietly been very good over the last month. Since sitting out the UAB game with a shoulder injury, Paige has been stellar: he's racked up 46 assists against just 19 turnovers, an assist/turnover ratio of 2.42:1. That's a dramatic improvement over his pre-UAB ratio of 1.09:1.
But he still needed that late-game baptism, to control the flow of a close ACC game and make it clear that the offense ran through him. That's what happened against the Terps. Although Paige shot just 1-for-7 from the field, his contributions went much deeper than just shooting.
The greatest leap for a Williams-coached point guard usually comes when they understand not just what they're supposed to do individually, but what everyone else is supposed to do. Kendall Marshall once said it took him until midway through his freshman season to fully grasp everything involved in running the point. Late in the Maryland game, it looked an awful lot like Paige was acting as the traffic cop for everyone on the floor.
Less than a month ago, Paige was often sharing the primary ballhandling duties with Dexter Strickland, even in key moments. But in the closing minutes of Saturday's game, it was Paige with the ball in his hands. He had a pair of spectacular possessions, once flummoxing two Terrapin defenders with consecutive behind the back dribbles. Later, he found James Michael McAdoo with a slick blind pass after dribble penetration.
That assist was Paige's sixth of the day, with a third of them coming in the final six minutes as Carolina tried to ice the win. More impressively, the half-dozen assists came against zero turnovers. That means he did something neither Ty Lawson nor Kendall Marshall was able to do--start a game against an ACC opponent as a freshman and finish with zero turnovers.
Looking back through the ten-year Williams era, Paige's zero-turnover performance in his fourth ACC start is the earliest a first-year point guard has ever committed zero miscues against a league opponent (Freshman Bobby Frasor and sophomore Raymond Felton-in his first year under Williams-each had a zero-turnover game in their 10th ACC start).
Paige will try to duplicate that effort tonight against Georgia Tech at 9 p.m. at the Smith Center; tickets are available.
"I'm very comfortable at this point," Paige said. "We're into ACC play now and it's go time. I'm seeing opportunities when I can attack, and I'm very comfortable and I'm comfortable with how my teammates are playing."
After being challenged by Williams over the holidays, Paige also has taken the initiative to improve his defense. After winning zero of the defensive awards handed out by the coaches after each game in the first two months of the season, he's won three of the last six. His defense--both on the ball and helping on big man Alex Len--helped set the tone for a ferocious first half. Maryland turned the ball over on five of its first six possessions, leading Williams to say, "I felt like Marcus slapped away almost every ball in the first half." Paige spent most of his defensive possessions on Maryland's Seth Allen, who finished 2-for-12 with zero assists and one turnover.
Since mid-October, Williams has insisted his team has the potential to be a solid defensive club. That almost always begins with solid pressure from the guards, which Paige has discovered can also lessen his offensive burden.
"When we get stops, it makes my job a lot easier, because we have a lot of good scorers running the wing, and Desmond (Hubert) and Mac running the floor," he said. "It's easy to get a lot of easy opportunities when we get up and pressure on defense."