HOUSTON – There’s at least one game remaining, possibly two, in Marcus Paige’s college career. Inevitably, however, the senior guard will wake up one morning this time next week and his time as a Tar Heel will be in the past.
There will be no more practices at the Smith Center, no more UNC games played on national television, and no more offseason workouts that tax the body while strengthening team bonds.
It’s been a hell of a ride.
Whether Roy Williams knew it or not, the greatest compliment he ever paid Tyler Hansbrough was telling his assistant coaches on a daily basis to be thankful they were able to coach a kid like that. A young man that’s an even better person than a basketball player, and that’s setting a high bar.
Paige has reached that rarified air that so few achieve, even those within a program that helped build the sport.
“I said it last year and this year,” Williams said recently, “let's be thankful we're fortunate enough to coach a young man like that for his basketball, and all of those things, his academics, for his work in the community and the example he sets for our university. He's been an exemplary player, student-athlete. There's some guys I feel like I need to be paid to coach, and for Marcus, I'd need to back up to the pay window, because I would coach him for nothing.”
The scrawny, 6-foot tall, 155-pound kid from Marion, Iowa signed with UNC as top-50, four-star recruit already penciled in as Kendall Marshall’s backup. Instead, the significant weight of Williams’s up-tempo offense dropped on his thin shoulders when Marshall left early for the NBA.
Paige admits that as a freshman he didn’t know he had the type of leadership skills that he would become known for and that was capable of directing a team to the Final Four. He was just trying to stay afloat, not saying much of anything because he did not view himself on the same level as Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo.
“He struggled a little bit,” Williams said. “But for the most part he just handled it, tried to do the best he could do, relished the good plays and put the bad plays behind him.”
Then came his sophomore year and the suspensions that sidelined Hairston and veteran guard Leslie McDonald. What followed was an All-American season that Williams recently described “as good a year as I've ever had a backcourt player play.”
Paige averaged 19.9 points in eight games against Top-25 opponents in 2013-14, earning the moniker #SecondHalfPaige for scoring double digits in the second half 20 times after scoring single digits in the first half. He also shot 45.3 percent from 3-point range (58-of-128) after halftime.
Paige’s 32-point performance in leading an undermanned UNC squad to an upset of No. 3 Louisville in November 2013 was topped three months later when he scored 31 of his career-high 35 points after halftime, including the game-winner with 0.9 seconds to play, in an instant classic of a duel with N.C. State’s T.J. Warren.
“I think my sophomore year was a huge year for me growing up as a person and as a player,” Paige said on Friday, “because I got thrust into a role where I had no choice but to be that vocal guy, to be the guy that gets on other people, to hold other people accountable and then to back that up with the way I played. And since then, I’ve just felt like it’s been an easier transition to become that guy that can be an extension of a coach on the floor.”
Injuries hampered his junior season, although his production was offset by his emergence as a player-coach of sorts, prompting roommate Brice Johnson to refer to him as “Coach’s right-hand man.”
With a trio of highly-touted freshmen to fold into the mix, Paige sought out Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry to help bridge the gap between the high school and college games. Those efforts fueled the trio’s progression, according to Jackson, due to Paige’s willingness to engage, instruct and laugh with them.
“He’s our leader,” Jackson said. “When he is out there trying to lead us, everybody listens. Whenever he comes out playing aggressive, everybody follows with that. Whenever he comes out playing confident, everybody follows with that.”
Paige has yet to regain his sophomore form, although there are still glimpses of that lethal marksmanship from time to time. The one drawback of that second season is that fans and media have held him to that standard for too long, hoping to see a return to excellence while oftentimes overlooking the player he’s become.
During the midst of UNC’s current postseason run, Paige attempted – unsuccessfully – to shut down the constant grading of his play and its value to the team.
“It's not about me at this point,” he said. “It's never been about me. I've always been a guy that just tries to lose myself in the game and do whatever I can to help the team.”
That is what’s unique about Paige. He didn't necessarily want to be the guy, but he was never going to turn the job down. It’s about more than individual accolades; it’s about winning.
“If you go in that locker room and ask Marcus if he enjoyed his sophomore or senior year more,” Williams said, “he'll tell you he enjoyed this one more because he and Tyler Hansbrough both enjoyed winning… I think both of those kids appreciate winning and understand how difficult it is and they enjoy that more.”
Paige, who undoubtedly will have fond memories to reflect upon and share like so many Tar Heels before him, will be fine when he moves on. After his time playing basketball comes to an end, he will have that trio of Academic All-American honors to fall back on, even though he seems destined to remain in the game as a coach.
When Paige walks off the court in Houston for the last time as a Tar Heel, whether it be on Saturday or Monday, it’s the sport that will suffer the most.