Duke rematch about more than rivalry for Paige, UNC

ByEamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer ESPN logo
Saturday, March 5, 2016
North Carolina's Marcus Paige reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida State, Saturday Jan. 24, 2015, in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina's Marcus Paige reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida State, Saturday Jan. 24, 2015, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

DURHAM -- Broadly speaking, the highlight of Marcus Paige's senior season was no different from any other. He was in the middle of the Dean E. Smith Center floor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, surrounded by thousands of Tar Heels fans, awash in Carolina blue. He had a tool in his hand, and a goal in his mind.

Yet Paige's aim wasn't trained on an orange cylinder. His goal wasn't to bury a 3, or run a clean secondary break, or rub his defender off on a ball screen. Save for a possible case of mild stage fright, there was no opponent on the floor. He didn't even have a basketball. He had a microphone. And he had a coach to thank.

"The one thing you did was you always believed in me," Paige said of UNC coach Roy Williams. "You always told me, 'I believe in you, son. You're going to make shots, you're going to do fine, you're going to be a great player.' ... I've tried to be every bit the player you wanted me to be, but you've made me a better man. That's the most important thing. I'm a 10 times better man than I was when I got here. So thank you."

Both men choked back tears. Or Paige did, anyway; at some point, Williams basically gave up. As a season defined by its star seniors draws to a close, and the senior night feels pile up at record speed, Monday's moment in Chapel Hill was perhaps the most memorable to date.

That it was also the most memorable moment of Paige's 2015-16 is fittingly indicative of the disappointing individual season that has preceded it. Which is why Saturday's edition of UNC's decadeslong crusade against Duke is -- for both the Tar Heels in general and Paige specifically -- as much about redemption as rivalry.

This was, after all, supposed to be the year. After carrying North Carolina's offense and rocketing to star status as a sophomore -- when he made 86 of his team's 146 3s -- Paige's encore was hampered by the nagging pain of plantar fasciitis. Now, as a senior, he would be healthy. He would lead the most talented roster of his career. Williams' longest stretch at the school without a regular-season conference title -- three years and running -- would end. Carolina began the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. Paige was a preseason All-American.

It's four months later, and he won't be first-team All-ACC. Paige's 2015-16 season, though hardly bad by any stretch, is nonetheless his worst since he was suddenly thrust into a starting role as a freshman.

His numbers are down across the board. A year ago, despite injury, he shot 39.5 percent from 3, posted a 52.6 effective field goal percentage, shot 86.5 percent from the free throw line and averaged 14.1 points, 4.5 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game. This season, North Carolina's all-time leader in 3-pointers is shooting just 33.6 percent from beyond the arc. His effective field goal percentage has dipped accordingly. His assist rate is down. He's worse at the stripe by nearly 10 percentage points.

The bad-luck broken hand Paige suffered in early November, which caused him to miss the Tar Heels' first six games, doesn't explain these declines. In the first 10 games after his return, he shot 50 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3, and averaged 16 points per game. On Jan. 4, he scored 30 points on 21 shots (including five 3s) in UNC's win at Florida State.

North Carolina guard Marcus Paige warms up before an NCAA college basketball game against Northern Iowa, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015
Charlie Neibergall

Since then, in his past 14 games Paige has made less than a third of his field goals. He has shot 26.7 percent from 3. He's averaging just nine points per game.

The emergence of Joel Berry II in UNC's backcourt has helped take some of the huge offensive load off of Paige's shoulders. It has also led to a spike in the number of spot-up jumpers Paige takes, according to Synergy scouting data, and a marked decrease in pick-and-roll plays he runs as a ball handler. After years spent working almost entirely off the dribble, Paige's possession splits now resemble those of a pure shooting guard.

Maybe that evolution is uncomfortable. Or maybe this is just one big slump.

In any case, Paige's shooting woes haven't kept the Tar Heels from contending for the ACC regular-season title or a potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. This is still the best team in Paige's career. It is still the best Williams has fielded in years; he won six ACC titles from 2005 to 2012. Forward Brice Johnson is in the midst of his own All-American send-off. Justin Jackson has made the sophomore breakout leap on the wing. And in Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Joel James, Williams has more frontcourt depth at his disposal than any team in the country.

Despite that success -- or maybe because of it -- it is impossible not to wonder what this team might have been with Paige at his best. And there is no better example than North Carolina's first meeting with Duke.

On Feb. 17, Duke, reduced to five reliable players after Matt Jones' first-half injury, achieved its stunning upset in Chapel Hill thanks as much to its own performance as a startling case of Carolina malpractice. The final possession, and Williams' decision not to call timeout beforehand, received most of the scrutiny in the days that followed. But where was Paige? More specifically, where was the Paige who, two seasons ago, was a lock to take (and likely make) that shot?

Come to think of it, where was he in the second half? How did a point guard that good, and that experienced, allow Johnson -- who had 29 points in the first 27 minutes of the game -- to attempt just one field goal in the final 12:50, 11 of which he spent being guarded by a player (Marshall Plumlee) with four fouls?

North Carolina's Brice Johnson (11) drives to the basket as Duke's Brandon Ingram defends Wednesday.
Gerry Broome

Paige had 10 shots of his own that night. He made two. He went 0-of-6 from 3. His three turnovers were a season high (because, to his credit, Paige almost never turns the ball over this season). It was a nightmare of a game, one of the worst of his career. It was a devastating loss.

Needless to say, North Carolina wants that one back. On Saturday, the Tar Heels get their opportunity for revenge, this time at Cameron Indoor Stadium against a Duke team that for all of Mike Krzyzewski's brilliance remains vastly undermanned and inexperienced by comparison. This is not just a rivalry game. It is not just UNC-Duke. Saturday is Carolina's chance to redeem the program's most disappointing loss in years.

For Paige, it is even more than that. More than redemption. More than a chance to repay for the Duke loss.

It is, most of all, one last chance to prove his coach right. To make shots. To do fine. To be a great player.