CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – At halftime of UNC’s 65-41 win over Virginia on Saturday night, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson were honored as the 50th and 51st Tar Heels to have their jerseys retired.
The duo helped UNC win 108 games over their four years in Chapel Hill, culminating in a run to the national championship game last April.
“Great young men, I was really lucky to coach both of them,” Roy Williams told listeners of his radio show on Monday. “I had four great years with them.”
While both players were honored simultaneously, Williams has very distinct memories of their Tar Heel tenures.
“Marcus came in and felt a great deal of pressure because he thought he was going to come in and play a little bit under Kendall (Marshall) and also back Kendall up, but he was the 13th pick in the draft and left,” Williams said. “So we handed (Marcus) the ball and that’s tough. It’s tough for a freshman to do that.”
Paige averaged 13.1 points per game over his career and is UNC’s all-time leading 3-point shooter. As for Johnson, who Williams pushed and prodded throughout his collegiate career, the success came more gradually.
“Brice got better and better over four years,” Williams said. “In my opinion, I thought he was the best player in the ACC last year.”
The stats back up the claim: Johnson holds the records for points (39), rebounds (23), and blocks (8) in an ACC game last year. The Orangeburg, S.C. native finished his career with 11.6 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
Now their jerseys reside in the Smith Center rafters.
After the Virginia game you said you wanted to look at the film to see if your defense was the reason the Cavaliers shot as poorly as they did. Did you get a clear answer on that?
“We were more active than we’ve been and I think we were that way in the North Carolina State game as well. The big thing is they missed a lot of shots. We counted 12 shots in the two halves where we didn’t cover them nearly as well as we wanted to…. We were probably a little bit better defensively than I thought they were, and they probably didn’t miss as many wide open shots as I thought they did…. We just caught them on a good day for us when the ball didn’t go in the basket for them.”
Your team had eight fast break points against Virginia, but it seemed like your team was opportunistic in getting out and running.
“They don’t send a lot of guys to their offensive boards against us, they get people back. Tony (Bennett) does a great job of teaching defensive transition, so that’s one of their principles anyway. We faced several teams that don’t send as many people to the boards to make sure they get back on the break. They did a good job… we got some baskets out of our secondary break that didn’t count because it didn’t look like a fast break, but we like those as well.”
How big of a hit is it to lose Kenny Williams for the season?
“He was our best perimeter defender and if we had gotten Theo (Pinson) back… because Theo is not as solid as Kenny is, but Theo’s got great instincts and length, it would have been really good to have both of them play at the same time. Kenny is going to be operated on tomorrow and we think things will go really well, but he won’t be playing for us for the rest of this year.”
Were you frustrated at any point in the Virginia game with the officiating?
“Yes… but it’s a hard game to officiate, it really is. I did get a little frustrated. One time somebody thought I was having a vertigo attack when I went and put my head down on the scores table. I was actually praying to shut up. ‘Give me strength Lord before I go wacko’ kind of thing. It’s a hard game to officiate and in a game like Virginia, each possession is more important so each call is more important.”
With Mark Gottfried’s recent firing, what is your opinion on coaches being let go in the middle of the year?
“I don’t think any college coach should be fired in the middle of the season. If you want to fire them that’s your job as an athletic director or president, but it’s not professional athletics. Unless there’s something going on that’s not involved with the coaching part. It’s disappointing to me if in college athletics we fire coaches in the middle of the year. He didn’t get the job himself, somebody gave him that job. So there’s responsibility everywhere. They have to make decisions that they think is best for them in each situation… and I’m not talking specifically about North Carolina State… but I personally don’t like a coach being fired in the middle of the season.”
How has Luke Maye’s game continue to develop?
“He does shoot the ball well from the 3-point line. He needs to have a couple of moves inside to get people to play him down there. He’s an intelligent kid… he’s a wiz and already been admitted to the business school. He’s really done a good job. I need him to play with that same mentality on the court… before the North Carolina State game I told him, ‘you’re not a great shot blocker, that’s not who you are, but you have a brain good enough to get in front of somebody and draw a charge.’ During the State game he tried three times, and I love that…. He has a great knack for rebounding the basketball and a little better knack for boxing out.”
How is Isaiah Hicks recovering from his hamstring injury?
“He’s not one hundred percent, but he’s getting treated every morning…. His training is getting better but I don’t think we can ignore it. We’re trying to limit the number of reps that he gets in practice, but at the same time push him to try to get it back in shape. But I think it’s something we’ll be very concerned about probably throughout the end of the season.”