WASHINGTON, D.C. — North Carolina finished the year as the ACC regular season champs, closing the season with the first win in Cameron Indoor Stadium for anyone on the Tar Heel roster. They have a team with the bulk up front to be a matchup problem in the NCAA tournament, a roster that many believe may have the highest ceiling of any in college basketball and a real shot to finish as the dual-champions of one of the toughest conferences in the country.
So why does it feel like no one is talking about the UNC when it comes to reaching the Final Four and contending for a national title?
The long answer is complicated, some amalgam of mental toughness and a roster makeup that can’t effectively hide certain flaws. The short answer, however, is Marcus Paige and the brutal slump that he’s been mired in for the last eight weeks.
On January 4th, Paige popped off for 30 points as North Carolina steam-rolled Florida State in Tallahassee. In the four games following that outburst, he shot 5-for-35 from the field and 1-for-22 from three. In his last 16 games — effectively half of the season — Paige is averaging 9.1 points and shooting 32.2 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from three. That includes Thursday afternoon’s eight-point performance in a commanding, 88-71 win over Pitt in the quarterfinal of the ACC tournament.
So what’s wrong with Marcus Paige, a kid that was good enough as a sophomore to earn some Preseason Player of the Year accolades last season?
“At the end of the day, it’s all between the ears,” Paige said after Thursday’s win. “Coming off my broken hand, the first couple weeks I was playing like an all-american. I was in my groove. Me and Brice had good chemistry. Then for whatever reason, I just went through a shooting slump and lost a lot of my confidence.”
“You can see guys like Denzel Valentine and Buddy Hield, how much confidence can do for you. Once you start playing confident you’re a different player and I just haven’t had that game where I’ve been able to get all the way back.”
And there-in lies the frustration for Paige. He’ll have nights where he makes a couple of threes — on Thursday, he went 2-for-5 from deep, hitting a pair of significant, momentum-changing triples — and follow that up with another 1-for-7 games.
“Listen, all my workouts, I’m shooting as well as I’ve shot all my life,” Paige said. “In practice I’m shooting well. I made a couple today. It’s mental. It’s something that I can fix.”
Part of the problem, Paige says, is that it gets into his head. Paige is a smart kid, but he has a tendency to overthink games and the way he plays in them. And that’s when his struggles build. Instead of heading into a game worrying about specific matchups or what plays may work against a given defense, he’s wondering whether this will be the day that he snaps out of his funk, hits six threes and scores 30 points.
“It builds on itself a little bit, but then you guys build it more than it needs to be built. So thanks for that,” Paige said. “At some point, you just have to relax and trust your instincts and play basketball. It’s just so hard to do when you’re not playing at the level you’re usually at. It’s something I struggle with.”
“All you gotta do is always believe,” said assistant coach Hubert Davis, who insists that the team is pushing Paige to continue shooting the ball. “You look at three things: 1. Is there something wrong with the form? 2. The quality of the shots. 3. Are you putting the work in? And Marcus is doing all of them.”
The most important thing for Paige at this point isn’t what he’s done for the last two months. It’s that the memory of a forgettable season will be erased if he plays in March like he did in December.
“If I click here down the stretch no one is going to care what I did in January.”