Former North Carolina forward Sam Perkins slid into the Tar Heels' locker room as unassuming as would be expected for a 6-foot-9 man labeled "Big Smooth." Coach Roy Williams briefed the team on Perkins’ credentials: a starter on the 1982 national championship team, a two-time Associated Press All-American, the fourth overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft -- one behind Michael Jordan. Williams then gave Perkins the floor to address the team after their 80-69 win against Clemson on Dec. 30.
Marcus Paige was listening to Williams, but he didn’t have to hear it.
"He didn’t have to prep me cause I’m a junkie, so I knew a lot of that stuff," Paige said. "I’m sure he had to prep the younger guys -- '82, that’s not recent for us. A guy like (freshman) Luke Maye, he’s like 17-years-old, he probably needed that."
If Paige wasn’t the Tar Heels' all-time leader in made 3-pointers, if he hadn’t joined a short list of players in program history, including Phil Ford, who started all four years at point guard, he might just be that kid who’s knowledgeable to the point of being annoying about Carolina basketball. He seemingly knows it all.
But in a good way.
When he learned Indiana was their Sweet 16 opponent, he invoked the 1981 national title game that the Hoosiers won against North Carolina in Philadelphia.
"If I remember correctly, there’s not an '81 banner in the Dean Dome," Paige said. "We can turn the clock back 30 years back for a little revenge hopefully."
As much as he loves the history of the program, Paige wants to write his name among the list of great Tar Heels. The ones who return back to Chapel Hill to standing ovations. The ones who get an added bit of hysteria when they appear on the video scoreboard during games. The ones who won helped hang championship banners.
"He's an extremely intelligent and bright young man, and I think history means a lot to him, guys who played before him and the tradition of North Carolina that we've had throughout the years," said Ford, who played at UNC from 1974-78. "He's aware of that situation, and I'm just glad he chose to come to the University of North Carolina. He's been fun to watch these four years."
Paige has had his struggles this season. He’s having his worst season percentage-wise shooting from 3-point range. He also knows none of that will matter if his postseason narrative can include a Final Four. And the history of his senior year will totally be rewritten if the Heels’ can cut down the national championship nets.
Williams sees some of the same leadership characteristics in Paige as key players on Carolina’s national title teams in 2005 and 2009.
"Marcus’ complete devotion to the team and how we’re doing was Tyler Hansbrough, was Bobby Frasor, was Sean May, was Raymond Felton, was Jackie Manuel, was Kendall Marshall," Williams said. "I still add that (2012) team. If John (Henson) didn’t get hurt in the ACC tournament and Kendall in the (NCAA), I think that’d be one of those teams we talk about just like ’05 and ’09. So I see a little bit of that in Marcus as I saw in some of those guys."
Paige wants to be one of those guys.
Hansbrough, who still spends time in the summer working out in Chapel Hill, said Paige has earned his way into the club.
"The unique thing about Marcus is his intelligence," Hansbrough said. "He’s a smart basketball player, he knows how to make the right decisions. I’d love to see him make a big tournament push."
The right decisions include Paige returning to school. He could have turned pro after his sophomore season, when his stock was arguably at its highest and he averaged a career-best 17.2 points per game.
"If I would have left my sophomore year I’d be in the third year of a contract right now, but I also wouldn’t have my degree and the experience this year being part of an elite team that has the chance to do something special," Paige said. "When you live your life you’ve got to do stuff that makes you happy, and I’m glad that I’ve done this."
He’s already got the personal awards solidified. Paige became the 50th player in Carolina history to qualify to have his jersey honored in the rafters. His senior class teammate Brice Johnson earned his way this season by being named All-America by one of the outlets the NCAA uses to determine consensus honors. Paige was on the Sporting News’ second team All-America list as a junior.
Even without that honor, Paige earned a certain amount of reverence from Carolina faithful for the way he’s carried himself off the court. He’s been like the unofficial team statesman during the past two seasons, when P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were suspended for receiving impermissible benefits and the academic scandal rocked the athletic department.
That’s why Shammond Williams, who played guard from 1994-98, said he was most proud that it was Paige who surpassed him as the school’s career 3-point leader. Shammond Williams, an assistant coach with Tulane, presented Paige a ceremonial basketball before the teams played on Dec. 16.
"For me, the greatest thing about being able to give Marcus that basketball was he was very deserving," Shammond Williams said. "And more than anything else, I told him, 'You exemplify what a Carolina basketball player is supposed to be.'"