A failed alley-oop is proof Marcus Paige is back for No. 9 North Carolina

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

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.”

North Carolina transfer Caleb Love commits to Arizona

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

Caleb Love is now headed to Arizona.

The North Carolina transfer tweeted, less than a month after decommitting from Michigan, that he will play next season with the Wildcats.

“Caleb is a tremendously talented guard who has significant experience playing college basketball at a high level,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said in a statement. “We look forward to helping Caleb grow his game at Arizona. And as we near the completion of the roster for the upcoming season, we feel great about how everything has come together. Now it’s time for the real work to start.”

A 6-foot-4 guard, Love averaged 14.6 points and 3.3 assists in three seasons at North Carolina. He averaged 17.6 points in seven NCAA Tournament games, helping lead the Tar Heels to the 2022 national championship game.

Love entered the transfer portal after leading North Carolina with 73 3-pointers as a junior and initially committed to Michigan. He decommitted from the Wolverines earlier this month, reportedly due to an admissions issue involving academic credits.

Love narrowed his transfer targets to three schools before choosing to play at Arizona over Gonzaga and Texas.

Love will likely start on a team that will have dynamic perimeter players, including Pelle Larsson, Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley.

Biden celebrates LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams at separate White House events


WASHINGTON – All of the past drama and sore feelings associated with Louisiana State’s invitation to the White House were seemingly forgotten or set aside Friday as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the championship women’s basketball team to the mansion with smiles, hugs and lavish praise all around.

The visit had once appeared in jeopardy after Jill Biden suggested that the losing Iowa team be invited, too. But none of that was mentioned as both Bidens heralded the players for their performance and the way they have helped advance women’s sports.

“Folks, we witnessed history,” the president said. “In this team, we saw hope, we saw pride and we saw purpose. It matters.”

The ceremony was halted for about 10 minutes after forward Sa’Myah Smith appeared to collapse as she and her teammates stood behind Biden. A wheelchair was brought in and coach Kim Mulkey assured the audience that Smith was fine.

LSU said in a statement that Smith felt overheated, nauseous and thought she might faint. She was evaluated by LSU and White House medical staff and was later able to rejoin the team. “She is feeling well, in good spirits, and will undergo further evaluation once back in Baton Rouge,” the LSU statement said.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, Biden said, more than half of all college students are women, and there are now 10 times more female athletes in college and high school. He said most sports stories are still about men, and that that needs to change.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

“Folks, we need to support women sports, not just during the championship run but during the entire year,” President Biden said.

After the Tigers beat Iowa for the NCAA title in April in a game the first lady attended, she caused an uproar by suggesting that the Hawkeyes also come to the White House.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE” and said she would prefer to visit with former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, instead. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

Nothing came of Jill Biden’s idea and the White House only invited the Tigers. Reese ultimately said she would not skip the White House visit. She and co-captain Emily Ward presented team jerseys bearing the number “46” to Biden and the first lady. Hugs were exchanged.

Jill Biden also lavished praise on the team, saying the players showed “what it means to be a champion.”

“In this room, I see the absolute best of the best,” she said, adding that watching them play was “pure magic.”

“Every basket was pure joy and I kept thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” the first lady added, noting that she grew up before Title IX was passed. “We’ve made so much progress and we still have so much more work to do.”

The president added that “the way in which women’s sports has come along is just incredible. It’s really neat to see, since I’ve got four granddaughters.”

After Smith was helped to a wheelchair, Mulkey told the audience the player was OK.

“As you can see, we leave our mark where we go,” Mulkey joked. “Sa’Myah is fine. She’s kind of, right now, embarrassed.”

A few members of Congress and Biden aides past and present with Louisiana roots dropped what they were doing to attend the East Room event, including White House budget director Shalanda Young. Young is in the thick of negotiations with House Republicans to reach a deal by the middle of next week to stave off what would be a globally calamitous U.S. financial default if the U.S. can no longer borrow the money it needs to pay its bills.

The president, who wore a necktie in the shade of LSU’s purple, said Young, who grew up in Baton Rouge, told him, “I’m leaving the talks to be here.” Rep. Garret Graves, one of the House GOP negotiators, also attended.

Biden closed sports Friday by changing to a blue tie and welcoming the UConn’s men’s championship team for its own celebration. The Huskies won their fifth national title by defeating San Diego State, 76-59, in April.

“Congratulations to the whole UConn nation,” he said.

Marquette’s Prosper says he will stay in draft rather than returning to school

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

MILWAUKEE — Olivier-Maxence Prosper announced he is keeping his name under NBA draft consideration rather than returning to Marquette.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decision.

“Thank you Marquette nation, my coaches, my teammates and support staff for embracing me from day one,” Prosper said in an Instagram post. “My time at Marquette has been incredible. With that being said, I will remain in the 2023 NBA Draft. I’m excited for what comes next. On to the next chapter…”

Prosper had announced last month he was entering the draft. He still could have returned to school and maintained his college eligibility by withdrawing from the draft by May 31. Prosper’s announcement indicates he instead is going ahead with his plans to turn pro.

Prosper averaged 12.5 points and 4.7 rebounds last season while helping Marquette go 29-7 and win the Big East’s regular-season and tournament titles. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

He played two seasons at Marquette after transferring from Clemson, where he spent one season.

Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. returning for last season of eligibility

kansas mccullar
Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports

Kevin McCullar Jr. said that he will return to Kansas for his final year of eligibility, likely rounding out a roster that could make the Jayhawks the preseason No. 1 next season.

McCullar transferred from Texas Tech to Kansas for last season, when he started 33 of 34 games and averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds. He was also among the nation’s leaders in steals, and along with being selected to the Big 12’s all-defensive team, the 6-foot-6 forward was a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award.

“To be able to play in front of the best fans in the country; to play for the best coach in the nation, I truly believe we have the pieces to hang another banner in the Phog,” McCullar said in announcing his return.

Along with McCullar, the Jayhawks return starters Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams from a team that went 28–8, won the Big 12 regular-season title and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Arkansas in the second round.

Perhaps more importantly, the Jayhawks landed Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, widely considered the best player in the portal, to anchor a lineup that was missing a true big man. They also grabbed former five-star prospect Arterio Morris, who left Texas, and Towson’s Nick Timberlake, who emerged last season as one of the best 3-point shooters in the country.

The Jayhawks also have an elite recruiting class arriving that is headlined by five-star recruit Elmarko Jackson.

McCullar declared for the draft but, after getting feedback from scouts, decided to return. He was a redshirt senior last season, but he has another year of eligibility because part of his career was played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a big day for Kansas basketball,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “Kevin is not only a terrific player but a terrific teammate. He fit in so well in year one and we’re excited about what he’ll do with our program from a leadership standpoint.”

Clemson leading scorer Hall withdraws from NBA draft, returns to Tigers

clemson pj hall
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson leading scorer PJ Hall is returning to college after withdrawing from the NBA draft on Thursday.

The 6-foot-10 forward took part in the NBA combine and posted his decision to put off the pros on social media.

Hall led the Tigers with 15.3 points per game this past season. He also led the Tigers with 37 blocks, along with 5.7 rebounds. Hall helped Clemson finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference while posting a program-record 14 league wins.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Hall gained experience from going through the NBA’s combine that will help the team next season. “I’m counting on him and others to help lead a very talented group,” he said.

Hall was named to the all-ACC third team last season as the Tigers went 23-10.