CHARLOTTESVILLE — With his time in a North Carolina uniform dwindling, Marcus Paige sat down recently and watched some old game tape for nostalgia’s sake. He had forgotten how he looked as a freshman, when he was a green point guard sporting a T-shirt and ankle braces in games.
But it would be understandable if Paige — mired in the worst shooting slump of his career for the past seven weeks — was seeking to rediscover his path to becoming the most prolific three-point shooter in the Tar Heels’ storied history. Though North Carolina (23-5, 12-3) leads the ACC standings and is ranked seventh nationally heading into its showdown at No. 3 Virginia on Saturday, Paige’s struggles have raised concern about the team’s larger ambitions.
“If they’re going to be a national championship contender,” said analyst Seth Greenberg, in Charlottesville as part of ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast of the game, “Marcus Paige needs to be good.”
That is what was expected for the genial Iowan in his senior season. His scoring more than doubled from his freshman to his sophomore season, to a team-high 17.5 points per game. He averaged 14.1 points per game his junior year despite plantar fasciitis in his right foot and a right ankle injury that eventually required surgery. In November he was named ACC preseason co-player of the year, along with Malcolm Brogdon of Virginia.
After sitting out the first six games with a broken bone in his hand, Paige averaged 16.3 points in his first 10 contests, capped by a season-high 30 in a win at Florida State on Jan. 4.
Then he went cold.
Over his next four games, Paige scored a total of 15 points. In that stretch, North Carolina’s all-time career leader in three-point baskets, with 271, missed 21 of 22 attempts from behind the arc, including the last 18.
He still hasn’t pulled himself out of the funk. In the 12 games since Florida State, Paige has averaged just nine points per game on 31.3 percent shooting, including 27.8 percent on three-pointers. That has dropped his three-point percentage for the season to a career-low 34.1.
“No one ever knows what kids are thinking, and I talk to Marcus a lot,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “I think he’s honest, and I don’t think it’s a confidence issue. We do some shooting drills and he’s been off the charts.
“He hasn’t shot it the way we wanted him to shoot it or the way we expected him to shoot it, but I’ll go back to that same thing. We got, hopefully, a long time left in the season. Sometimes the other team’s defense is aimed at you and it’s really effective, and then sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in the basket. But I don’t think he has a confidence issue.”
In the meantime, Paige has watched as Brice Johnson, his best friend on the team, has emerged as North Carolina’s go-to guy. Johnson, a 6-foot-9 senior forward, ranks fifth in the ACC with 17 points per game and leads the league in rebounding (10.6 per game) and field goal percentage (61.8). Saturday’s game at Virginia (21-6, 10-5) could feature the race for ACC player of the year as a subplot, but between Johnson and Brogdon (fourth in the ACC at 18.2 points per game), not one of the preseason picks.
Johnson’s emergence, coupled with Paige’s drought, has led to questions about Paige’s status as team leader. Fan angst spiked with an agonizing 74-73 home loss to arch-rival Duke on Feb. 17, when Johnson finished with 29 points and 19 rebounds but Paige missed 8 of 10 shots and committed a turnover that led to the winning points for the Blue Devils.
“I think it’s still my team — but I don’t think there’s any question as to who our number-one option is, in terms of offense and who’s been the most productive,” Paige said. “It’s tough. I’d like to be in the situation and in the running for that [ACC player of the year award], but my team’s in first place. My best friend and teammate is doing exactly what I thought I was going to do, so if anyone else is going to do it, it’s pretty cool that it’s Brice.
“It’s been a fun ride, even though it definitely hasn’t been the way I thought it would be. I got no issues with it. That’s just life sometimes.”