During the ups and downs that have already felt like an entire season for the Tar Heels in half the time, the one player who had been consistently dependable throughout it all was leading scorer Marcus Paige.
Now, even that has changed.
Paige is coming off consecutive games being held to a season-low eight points. The losses to Wake Forest and Miami to open ACC play are the only games this season where he hasn’t scored double figures. Paige shot a combined 5 of 27 from the field during those games, including 3-for-19 from 3-point range.
Finding a way to end Paige’s slump prior to Saturday’s game at No. 2 Syracuse is a priority for the Tar Heels.
“I try to have the next play mentality, but it’s tough when you literally can’t buy a bucket,” Paige said. “My teammates look to me to be aggressive, but if I’m being aggressive and not making shots it’s not helping us. I have to do better. I have to find a way to help the team instead of missing jump shots.”
UNC coach Roy Williams believes fatigue might be a factor. Paige is averaging 35.3 minutes per game -- the lone Carolina player who averages more than 30. Williams asked Paige if he was worn down from playing too much after the Wake loss and the sophomore responded that he just had a bad game.
“He has more accountability than just about any kid I’ve ever coached,” Williams said. “If I were to go in there to him right now and say it he’d say the same thing, but maybe I have played him too many minutes.”
After a second straight off game shooting against Miami, in which Paige played 38 minutes, Williams probably won’t be asking again. Nate Britt and Leslie McDonald may end up playing more in the same back court than they have in previous games to get Paige more of a breather.
Carolina is averaging just 3.5 made 3-pointers per game this season. Against the vaunted Syracuse zone, the Heels will likely need to make a few more to have a chance at pulling off an upset. They'll have to make some perimeter shots to keep the Orange honest, otherwise UNC's post players could have little room to maneuver against a packed-in zone. Paige knows his contribution from outside will be key.
“I can’t be 1( for )11 of 2( for )11 or whatever I shot -- I didn’t get the box score,” Paige said. “I can’t do that if we’re going to be successful. That’s two games in a row so I’ve got to change what I’m doing.”