CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Marcus Paige is expected to make his first start of the season for No. 9 North Carolina against No. 2 Maryland on Tuesday.
The All-American guard fractured the third metacarpal on his right (non-shooting) hand on Nov. 3 while defending a teammate in practice. UNC announced a 3-to-4 week window for his return, which coincides with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge’s heavyweight nightcap.
"If he feels good, he'll start," head coach Roy Williams said during his press conference on Monday. "I think he earned that over three years."
Saturday marked Paige’s first live practice since his injury, followed by a walk-through and shootaround on Sunday.
“My hand feels good,” Paige said. “I guess my hand won’t be technically 100 percent for a while, but I don’t have any pain, so to me that’s 100 percent. If I don’t have to worry about it or think about it, I feel 100 percent.”
Williams has yet to finalize a decision about his starting lineup against the Terrapins, although he said Paige is likely to take sophomore Theo Pinson’s place in the backcourt. That scenario would slide Paige to the two-guard spot alongside of sophomore point guard Joel Berry.
“He’s our best player, our best defensive player, and that’s what everybody forgets,” Williams said. “I think that we’ve got to get a lot better defensively than the way we played those first six games, so I think that will help us. And his intensity level helps raise everybody else’s level, too.”
Paige will not wear a brace, but rather a pad that’s taped to the back of his right hand to soften any potential blows. His fingers will also be buddy-taped together to protect his middle finger. Both measures are preventative in nature.
The ACC Preseason Co-Player of the Year stressed to UNC’s athletic trainers the need to be comfortable using his right hand to dribble or drive to the basket. That request has been met, according to Paige.
UNC won five of its first six games in Paige’s absence, and while there may be an initial disruption in court chemistry, the pros far exceed the cons.
“I’m sure it will take a little bit of time, but the type of player he is, he just comes right back in and gels with us all,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said. “Obviously having him out there will open up a whole lot of things for everybody, so I think, overall, it won’t be too bad.”
Paige, who has averaged 13.2 points during his career and needs just nine 3-pointers to become the school’s all-time leader, had only missed one game due to injury in his first three seasons prior to this six-game stretch.
"I'm not putting really any pressure on myself," Paige said. "It's my first game back, I'm probably not going to be 'peak Marcus,' but I'd like to be. And if I am, it's great. But I'm not expecting myself to be perfect tomorrow. I just want to be able to go out and help the team ...
“I'm just happy to be back playing."