- C.L. Brown, College Basketball Reporter
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"He was just calling me Kemba Walker, Shabazz [Napier] as a joke," Paige said, laughing at the references to key Connecticut Huskies who stepped up at tournament time. "But he likes to do that anyway. He gets on my nerves, but that’s my guy."
Maybe Britt was inspired by head coach Roy Williams, who referenced the 2011 Huskies in a postgame celebration during the Heels’ ACC tournament run; both Walker and Napier epitomized how elite-level point guards can impose their will during the NCAA tournament. Or maybe Britt simply was projecting what he saw from how Napier led the Huskies to the title last season. Either way, Britt has repeated the name-calling.
It might only become more frequent if Paige can help North Carolina get past Wisconsin on Thursday and advance to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
Paige has been a different player since the postseason began. He’s averaging 17.0 points and 5.0 assists, which is up from 13.5 and 4.4 during the regular season. His shooting percentage jumped from 40.6 percent in the regular season to 45.3 percent -- all while playing 37 minutes per game, which is nearly five more minutes than he played in the regular season.
"I’m healthy, that’s the biggest part," said Paige, who has improved his 3-point shooting percentage from 38.5 to 41.4. "I’m a little more aggressive than I have been attacking the basket."
And the Huskies similarities? Walker elevated a team that finished ninth in the Big East and parlayed five straight wins to capture the league tournament crown into six straight wins for the national title as a 3-seed. Walker averaged 24.5 points and 5.0 assists in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Napier’s run was even more unlikely, leading the Huskies as a 7-seed to the national championship. Napier averaged 18.7 points and 3.8 assists last postseason.
"When you get to tournament play, I think the [value of] guard play is more exaggerated because they control the basketball so much," Williams said. "And if you have one guy …"
When Williams was an assistant at Carolina in 1984, Steve Alford was that guy for Indiana. Williams believed the Heels were the best team in the country that season and would have beaten any team in a best-of-seven series. But in the one-game urgency of the NCAA tournament, a guard who can control the game often can make the difference.
Paige can be that guy for Carolina.
"I hope so, but I think he’s done that somewhat for three years," Williams said. "We’ve got to get some other guys to step up. Shabazz was phenomenal last year, but [Ryan] Boatright and those other guys really, really played well also."
The biggest difference between Paige and the former UConn guards is they both assumed more ownership of their respective championship teams. (Not to mention got to the free throw line more.) During the regular season especially, Paige could at times be too unselfish.
With the chance to take the lead in regulation of a tie game at Louisville, Paige deferred to J.P. Tokoto taking the shot on their second-to-last possession. During the entire schedule of February games, Paige never led the team outright in shot attempts.
Looks like that has changed. Paige is Carolina’s best player and looks like he’s starting to understand that.
In the Heels’ win over Virginia in the ACC tournament, his up-and-under move against Malcolm Brogdon, who was voted co-defensive player of the year by the league's coaches, helped stop the Cavs’ momentum.
"When it gets intense and it’s a one- or two-possession game," Paige said, "you’re so focused on what’s going on on the court and your sense of urgency is elevated to such a high level that you’re not thinking ‘Oh, this could win the game.’ In the moment, you’re kind of zoned out in a good way -- I guess zoned in is a better way to talk about it."
Had Paige consistently done that in the regular season, he might have lived up to the lofty preseason expectations. Instead, his performances remained low key during the regular season.
A lot of that was due to the plantar fasciitis in his left foot that plagued him for the better part of December through February. It wasn’t until the second-to-last game of the regular season against Georgia Tech, Paige said, that his foot finally was pain free.
His play since then has reflected him being back to full health, but the healed foot is not the only reason he's elevated his play.
Asked about the factors in his improvement, Paige said, "I would say confidence, health and understanding I have to be a playmaker at this time of the year."
The Heels’ postseason fortunes might rest on that understanding.
Marcus Paige is stepping up his game for the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament.