CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — To get an idea of just how much No. 9 North Carolina’s tilt with No. 2 Maryland meant to the Tar Heel faithful, you first need to understand how often their most famous fan makes it out to the Dean E. Smith Center to see a game these days.
At least not in the four years that Marcus Paige has been in Chapel Hill.
But on Tuesday night, sitting right there in the floor seats, close enough to trip Melo Trimble if need be, was rapper J. Cole. He showed up early in the first half and didn’t leave until he had a chance to meet the team and take a picture with them after the game.
How much did that mean to them?
On one of the first possessions that Cole was court side, North Carolina’s Joel James hit a turnaround jumper over a Maryland defender and, on his way back down court, winked and pointed at the Fayetteville native.
Kennedy Meeks’ reaction was even better.
“Kennedy pointed it out to me in the middle of a defensive possession!” noted hip-hop head Marcus Paige said with a laugh after the game. “I’m talking to get through a screen and he’s like, ‘J. Cole walked in! He’s sitting right over there.'”
“Lemme tell you,” Paige continued, “everyday I play J. Cole stuff. He’s like No. 1 for me in terms of hip-hop artists.”
“We’re always hoping, since he’s from North Carolina and stays around here, that he’d come through. That was really cool.”
He did come through.
And what he saw was the Tar Heels beat their former ACC rivals, 89-81, in a game that drove home a point: When they’re healthy, when Paige is himself, North Carolina may very well be the best team in the country.
“Was all over, reflectin’ my life, boy, you heard me
Top it off I throw on my Carolina jersey” – J. Cole, ‘I got it’
Marcus Paige is back.
For the first time this season, Paige donned a North Carolina jersey, which is huge for the Heels. He’s their leader and their star and their all-american. He was all three of those things on Tuesday. He was a creator. He was a calming presence on the offensive end. He dove on the floor defensively and was a constant voice in his teammate’s ears. He was everything that you could ask a senior all-american to be.
“I like my team,” head coach Roy Williams said after the game. “I like my team a lot better when No. 5 is out there.”
More importantly, however, this was the first time in more than a calendar year that Paige stepped onto the floor of the Dean Dome without a bad ankle. Or plantar fasciitis. Or any of the pain that bothered him throughout his disappointing junior season.
On Tuesday night, he “only” had a taped up right hand to protect a bone he broke four weeks ago.
It didn’t take Paige long to find the form that made him the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year prior to the 2014-15 season. On the first Tar Heel possession, he came off of a ball-screen, drove the lane and found Meeks at the rim for a layup. Not 30 seconds later, he came off of a down screen and buried a three. He would finish with 20 points and five assists, shooting 7-for-12 from the floor and 4-for-5 from three while committing just a single turnover.
But if you ask his teammates, the moment that they realized that Paige was back — that their all-american was back to being an all-american — came midway through the first half.
Paige had stripped Trimble at midcourt, the ball ending up in Brice Johnson’s hands on a 3-on-1 break. Paige — who is known for his savvy and shooting ability, not for his athleticism — was streaking up the right side of the floor, calling for a lob. Johnson’s pass was low (there’s a reason centers don’t lead fast breaks) and Paige ended up giving him the ball right back for a dunk that pushed UNC’s lead to 11 points, sent the crowd into hysterics and forced Maryland into a timeout.
The play was a turning point in the half, but what went overlooked in that moment was that Paige was calling for a lob.
That never happens.
“No,” Johnson said matter-of-factly when asked if he’s ever seen Paige do that before. “First time.”
“Maybe in pickup over the summer,” Joel Berry II said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in an actual game.”
So when was the last time he called for a lob?
“Probably on the playground back in high school,” Paige said, adamant that he would have finished the play if the pass had been better. (Again, there’s a reason centers don’t lead fast breaks.)
And why was he calling for lobs?
“My body felt better than I thought it would,” he said, noting that he also tried to dunk on Maryland’s entire front line in the second half, drawing a foul in the process. “I was worried about how I would be conditioned because I only had one full practice of up and down.”
And that, more than anything, is the story from Tuesday night, that the Marcus Paige that Roy Williams currently has at his disposal is the Marcus Paige that took the ACC by storm as a sophomore; the Marcus Paige that was so dominant late in games that he earned the nickname ‘Second Half Marcus’. When he’s healthy, he’s far more athletic and dynamic that he gets credit for, and part of the reason for that is our short-term memory.
When we think of Paige, we think of the player we saw last season, the kid that failed to live up to the hype that he had entering the year. What we don’t think about is the fact that the kid was playing through plantar fasciitis in one foot and an ankle injury in the other foot that required offseason surgery. He didn’t complain about it. He didn’t use the injuries as an excuse or a crutch.
But the simple fact is that dealing with that pain in both feet — pain bad enough to relegate him to a stationary bike instead of the practice floor, pain that left him constantly limping around the apartment he and Johnson share — took away his quickness and explosiveness.
It’s back now.
“People don’t realize it, when Marcus is healthy?” Berry said, “I’ve seen it personally. In warmups today he did a windmill. Easy. Like it wasn’t nothing.”
So while we can sit here and listen to his teammates and coaches praise how valuable his presence is on the floor and what his leadership means to them and all those clichés and generalities that get thrown around by the sports media, what’s indisputable is that when Paige is healthy, he’s one of the best players in America. And missing one of the best players in America is the reason that North Carolina spent the first three weeks of the season looking like something other than the best team in America, or at least one of them.
Paige knows that.
He also knows that is what cost them that No. 1 ranking, that a 16-point collapse in a road game against one of the best mid-major programs in the country — a collapse that he could have helped prevent in a game that was scheduled to be his Iowa homecoming — is the reason that Tuesday night’s game didn’t feature the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country.
And that bothers him.
“I didn’t get a chance to stay No. 1,” Paige said. “Personally, I [do want it].”
“But I’m not too worried about that if we’re playing like the best team in the country.”