CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For the better part of four years, the Tar Heels turned to Marcus Paige in times of peril for leadership on the court. Such singular leadership has been a staple at North Carolina since Roy Williams returned home, whether it be David Noel leading a group of precocious freshmen in 2005-06, Tyler Hansbrough willing his team to back-to-back Final Fours and a national championship or Paige serving as a stable presence during some challenging years.
After looking up to Paige for so long, the Tar Heels were forced to look to one another entering the 2016-17 season. UNC’s upperclassmen are a veteran bunch having played in 16 postseason games, two ACC Tournament finals and a national championship game in the last two years alone. That solidarity has allowed for a collective approach to leadership this season.
Kennedy Meeks has started 106 career games. Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt have played in 140 career games, 12 shy of the school and ACC record set by Deon Thompson (2006-10). Justin Jackson is in consideration for ACC Player of the Year honors, while Joel Berry is the reigning ACC Tournament MVP and a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the nation’s top point guard.
And Theo Pinson is, well, Theo Pinson. The junior wing is arguably the most natural leader on the team, both with his versatility on the court and his comedy off the court. Whether or not his broken right foot in the preseason derailed his ascension into a primary leader on this team will serve as message board banter for years to come.
Regardless, the lack of one true leader has prompted the rise of many as the Tar Heels are seeking to secure back-to-back ACC regular season championships in this final stretch run.
“It’s a shared deal with the seniors and then Joel, Justin and Theo, now that he’s back playing,” Williams told reporters on Friday. “I think they’ve really done a nice job, but it’s been much more of a shared thing than it’s been sometimes in the past when you had a David Noel or a Marcus Paige, who just felt very comfortable in that role.”
While Paige was the dominant voice in the locker room, it wasn’t as though his teammates were quiet. Voices were never lacking, as evidenced by the Tar Heels’ affable antics on the road to Houston last spring.
“It’s more of a team thing now with nobody really standing out because all of us, vocally, are outspoken,” Meeks said. “Justin has come out of his shell the last couple of years. Joel, Theo, Nate and me have always been the more outgoing teammates on the team. I just think when you put all of that together and you lose a guy like Marcus, you have no choice but to come together and try to form something at least close to what he did.”
It was assumed by many observers that such an approach would endure a learning curve early in the season, a pivotal point of a game in which Paige’s voice would usually take over but yet was eerily absent. That never occurred, according to Meeks. A presumed byproduct of being together for so many years and knowing when one teammate needs to be picked up and another settled down.
It’s worked. UNC is 24-5 (12-3 ACC) and three wins away from the most games won by a Tar Heel team in the ACC regular season.
As for Williams, he believes in an organic development of leadership and therefore doesn’t have a preference for a solo leader or a committee approach.
“I like to let it happen,” Williams said. “The staff says a lot of times that I’ve got to be the leader, but it depends on the team. With Marcus, he was easy. Even his freshman year he had tremendous leadership skills. It was just an easy transition, and people trusted him…
“We’ve had pretty good leadership about every year. It just sort of comes naturally with the way we try to play and run the thing, I guess.”