Paige prepared for physical toll, high expectations with Heels
Marcus Paige hasn’t been back home to Cedar Rapids, Iowa very much in the offseason.
But when he has, people have been careful not to mentionn how the Tar Heels’ most recent season ended — with an 85-83 loss to the No. 3 seed Iowa State in the NCAA’s Round of 32.
"One of my best friends goes (to Iowa State), and he still doesn’t say too much to me about it because he knows I probably wouldn’t be very happy," Paige said. "It still stings."
In spite of everything he’s done so far in his career — including earning Second Team All-America and First Team All-ACC honors last season — Pagie knows by UNC standards, he’s done nothing until his team gets past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The returning UNC players who often come back to Chapel Hill for a game of pick-up or to work basketball camps have let him know about it, too.
"You get guys like Kendall (Marshall) coming back and talking about you guys haven’t done anything. Sean (May), … we can’t say anything to him because he won a title," Paige said. "Everyone that comes back has got some type of hardware that represents their team winning. That’s what we’re driven to do. We don’t want to be the group that doesn’t have anything to show for it."
Through all the upheaval and chaos surrounding the team since the end of Paige’s freshman year, the smooth point guard has been the lone constant. He had to grow up fast — literally and figuratively — and in some ways, that process continues.
Paige came to North Carolina as one of the smallest players in recent memory, barely 155 pounds soaking wet and as slender as that weight would suggest. Understandably, his slight build initially hurt his game in a physical ACC.
He gained over 10 pounds before last season began, ready for the imminent pounding. He thought he’d be the point guard of a team that had some talent in then-juniors James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, not to mention a capable shooter in senior 2-guard Leslie McDonald.
But McDonald missed the first third of the season, Hairston never played for the Tar Heels (eligibility issues), and Paige became the team’s main scoring option as UNC’s offense bogged down in the half-court, particularly early in the season.
Paige ended up playing an absurd amount of minutes by UNC standards — more than 35 a game, something head coach Roy Williams generally tries to avoid if he can — and often having to try to create offense all on his own.
But it wasn’t until the season ended that Paige realized what a toll it took. He could feel the fatigue, and then he saw it on the scale — he was nearly 10 pounds down from what he was at the start of the season, after working so hard to gain the weight.
"It was a long, exhausting year — physically. But hopefully, being a year older, I’ll be able to handle that a little better. But I don’t think I did a horrible job of it this past year," Paige said.
"This year, I just worked on all explosive stuff and trying to just make sure that my body is ready to handle large minutes like last year, but be more effective in those minutes. Last year, I had a lot of times where I would be out there on the court a long time but I would be having to catch up to my fatigue. So this year, I’m still working on being able to play through that and play more effectively in those stretches."
Paige carried the team as best he could on his small shoulders last season, averaging 17.5 points a game and leading the Tar Heels to a 24-10 record after a rough start (1-4 in ACC play, before finishing 13-5).
Now, it would seem that Paige has some help in the form of freshmen talent — point guard Joel Berry and wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson, the latter two being five-star recruits.
The only question remaining for Paige — a natural point guard, in his mind — is whether he can still play that position with two other point guards on the roster (Berry and sophomore Nate Britt), along with a lack of shooting guards.
When asked who would play at the two-spot if Paige got his wish and started at point, the usually eloquent Paige didn’t have an easy answer.
"That’s a good question," Paige said, laughing to himself and shaking his head. "That is a good question."
He brought up Jackson and Pinson as options, along with three-man and rising junior J.P. Tokoto, and both are possibilities. But Paige is well aware of the reality that he might have to be the one moving off the ball
"Obviously, point guard is what I am and what I will be moving forward. But with the talent that we have on our roster, especially at my position, it’s going to benefit us if I’m able to play off the ball for stretches like I did last year because (Berry and Britt) are too good to not have on the floor," Paige said.
"I think that gives us flexibility whereas last year, we almost had to have a lineup where I was the two for a lot of the year. This year, we have that option. … So that flexibility helps us, and I’m not going to let my preference to play point guard get in the way of that."
Paige slid into the role of a leader last year after a tumultuous off-season and start to the year as the team waited to hear if Hairston — who was drafted in the first round by the Charlotte Hornets in spite of not playing last year and would have been their best player, most likely — would be back.
This summer, Paige and his Heels teammates no longer have to answer an abundance of Hairston questions, relative to his off-the-court troubles.
"There were some things that happened last year in the off-season that obviously shook up our team a little bit — a-lotta-bit — and just kind of changed the whole dynamic of leadership, of scoring options, of all that stuff," Paige said. "This year, we haven’t had any of that. Our roster has been set. Everybody’s good to go. So it’s been a lot more relaxing from that standpoint."
The best news for Paige is that he doesn’t need to carry the full scoring load — assuming the freshmen are as good as advertised.
The other part of it, though, depends on some of his younger teammates stepping up and becoming more consistent.
Without McAdoo’s 14.2 points per game and McDonald’s 10.4, junior Brice Johnson is going to have to turn his 10.3 points per game into a bigger number. Tokoto needs to be more efficient, and rising sophomore Kennedy Meeks showed flashes, but needs to turn those into something more than his 7.6 points per game in 16.3 minutes.
Paige is confident all these things will happen.
Even so, he’s the best player on a team that will, in all likelihood, be a preseason top-10 team. There were times last year when he arguably deferred too much to his teammates and wasn’t selfish enough as a scorer. He’s still trying to find that balance, but his coaches have told him to be aggressive, until told otherwise.
"(Assistant coach Steve) Robinson told me to set the tone with my intensity and my aggressiveness and if they need to scale me back, they’ll do that," Paige said. "So that’s kind of the mindset I’m going to have going in. But I wouldn’t expect to average 20 a game or anything like that this year because we’re too talented for that."
"I think our scoring will be more balanced this year. There are guys that are ready to make leaps, especially offensively."
Duke will likely be picked to win the ACC this year, although UNC should get plenty of votes, too. Paige knows it’s far too early to know anything for certain. He learned that much during last year’s offseason, waiting for the latest Hairston or McDonald update.
But the relaxed, confident and more self-assured Paige likes what he’s seen so far from his teammates.
And he also knows it’s a nice change of pace in recent news surrounding UNC, where it was recently announced that the NCAA is coming back to town to reopen its investigation of academic misconduct.
That’s something he and his teammates can’t control, and it likely won’t be resolved anytime soon. But for Paige, a McDonald’s All-American, he and his teammates just need to stay positive.
"I think we realize the opportunity that we have coming up with everyone back and a good mix of experience and experienced talent. We’re pretty motivated," Paige said.
"It’s exciting. I like positive stuff about the University being around. People being excited for our basketball year 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."