This past weekend the North Carolina Tar Heels showed the nation they still have what it takes to beat the elite teams in the country. A major reason for that was the play of sophomore Iowa native Marcus Paige who has become the unquestioned leader of the Tar Heels. In the Hall Fame Tip-off Tournament Paige scored a total of 58 points in two games. He set a career-high in both games while going 15-25 from the field, 19-20 from the free line and 9-14 from the 3-point line, leading the team to its first tournament win since the 2009 national title and ACC Player of the Week honors. With his play Paige proved that he is not just the one of the most improved players in the ACC but the entire country.
Last season Paige struggled as most freshmen do with the transition to college. He at times appeared gun shy in terms of wanting to shoot the ball instead preferring to set his teammates. However, this season Paige has had to become a scorer and though he still appeared to be a little uncomfortable with that role in the first few games he now sounds like someone who is fully embracing it “I’m trying to stay in attack mode the entire time” he said after the Louisville game. Paige has been able to attack defenses from every where on the floor something that can be contributed to the added weight he put on during the summer. It is easy for Tar Heel fans to see the improvement in Paige’s upper body this season his arms and shoulders are noticeably bigger which is allowing him to finish around the rim a lot more often through contact. The added weight has also improved his conditioning which will be huge for the Heels has they continue to play shorthanded on the perimeter. The sophomore has been an iron man for the Heels so far this season, he has played 146 out of possible 160 minutes over the last 4 games. He needs to be on the court as the Heels are not the same on either end of the court without their leader.
The sensational sophomore has been great scoring the ball so far but the biggest improvement in his game has been in his leadership skills. Last season the Heels biggest problem aside from lack of production in the post was a lack of leadership among the players themselves, no one stepped up to let their voice be heard. However, Coach Williams made sure that problem would not repeat itself before the season even started. During his radio show Monday after the upset of Louisville Coach Roy said
“This summer I gave it to him verbally in front of everybody. The leaders of this team are Marcus and James Michael…Those are going to be the team leaders, I don’t care what class they are or anything. Everybody’s just got to accept it and it’s not going to change. You can accept it or you can fight it and you’re going to lose”.
Both the team and Paige have accepted it and no where was that more apparent than at the end of the first half against the Cardinals. Paige hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 44 and while many of his teammates appeared excited Paige was intense seen barking at teammates making sure they kept their focus and did not comfortable or happy with what they had accomplished. After the game he said about being a leader “I think from the start I felt that was my role and that’s my job. As we play more games, it just becomes more natural for me. I can be more of an ‘out there’ leader. I can yell at guys and get on guys. They really look to me. That’s something I appreciate” in an interview with Chapelboro.com.
Another area where has shown his leadership is helping with the development of freshman point guard Nate Britt who is in the same position Marcus was in last year, playing major points as freshman that was not expected. He has helped Britt adjust to his role which has allowed the two players to start developing great chemistry in the backcourt playing off one another.
It is hard to expect Paige to continue to score at the level he is right now averaging 22 points per game. At some point the Heels will get one or both of their suspend players back which will lighten the scoring load for him. However, what you can expect is for Paige to be the Heels go to scorer going forward for the rest of this season. He outdueled one of the best players in the country Russ Smith proving that he belongs in the discussion as one of the best guards in the country and one of the best players in the ACC. With Paige playing this way and his teammates following his lead, the Heels season now seems a lot brighter than it did this time last week.