UNC Basketball: Will Beefed Up Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson Help 'Heels Contend?

Rollin Yeatts@@TSBRollinFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2013

KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 22:  Marcus Paige #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during a free throw during a game against the Villanova Wildcats in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Sprint Center on March 22, 2013 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

It was a tough transition to the college ranks for North Carolina's Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson last season. Sporting unusually slight frames for their respective positions, both Tar Heels took a pounding as freshmen.

The 6'0" Paige weighed in at 157 pounds, while Johnson (6'9") tipped the scales at 187.

Though their positions land on opposite ends of the spectrum, both players were handicapped with their lack of size. But with the help of UNC's strength and conditioning coach, Jonas Sahratian, Paige and Johnson are working hard to level the playing field.

That involves a steady diet of weights and Sahratian's standard of six meals per day. The lifting might not even be the hardest part, though.

At least the lifting is free.

“[I'm] trying to eat as much as Jonas tells me to, but it’s hard sometimes because food is very expensive these days," Johnson said with a laugh, during his summer interview via Go Heels TV. "Food is very expensive."

Johnson's pockets may be empty, but he has still shoveled enough food down his throat to boost his weight to 200 pounds. His summer goal is 210, and that should be achievable over the next two months or so.

Despite his lack of size and strength, Johnson was actually pretty good at throwing his 187-pound frame around in the post. On many occasions, he was seen backing down much bigger defenders and dropping a hook or turnaround jumper in their eyes.

Johnson led the team in field-goal percentage for a good portion of the season, too, earning the moniker "Easy B" (Easy Bucket) from his teammates.

It isn't often freshmen get recognized by upperclassmen with a nickname—at least not a flattering one. That just speaks to the skill level of Johnson.

As he continues to learn the college game and neutralize size disadvantages, we will see Johnson get better on both ends of the floor. That could be pretty scary for the opposition.

He doesn't want to get too big, though.

I’m just trying to get a lot stronger. If I get a lot more weight, then I probably won’t be able to do half of the things I can do on offense and won’t be as mobile on defense, so I’m just trying to get a lot more stronger.

We'll see how he feels about that after another season of pounding in the post against the nation's elite. He may be just fine on the offensive end, but fighting for rebounds and defending the post will wear down the smaller guys.

Paige knows a little something about getting gassed from the physicality of the college game. He spoke about this in his own summer interview with Go Heels TV.

It really made a difference in college, when strength is a key part of the game. The refs let you play, and it's a lot more physical. When you take a pounding as a small guy, you know, you get tired quicker.

He pointed to the Maui Invitational as his rude awakening, saying he was "getting fatigued really fast."

Like Johnson, Paige is well on his way to making weight concerns a thing of the past. The rising sophomore is up to 171 pounds now, and he hopes to reach 175 by the end of the summer.

He's already seeing the positive effects of his training.

I feel a lot stronger. We do a lot of Olympic lifts with explosion stuff. So I feel more explosive, I feel stronger, I can fight and use the arm bar more effectively. A lot of that stuff translates to the court pretty well.

That will also help him fight off the barrage of screens he has to deal with in the backcourt. That's one of the few areas he struggled with on the defensive end.

And he still earned UNC's Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Now he'll be coming into the 2013-14 season as an experienced 175-pound point guard with 35 starts under his belt. That's a far cry from the 157-pound freshman who was thrown to the lions out of desperation.

Kendall Marshall's early departure left Roy Williams without a scholarship point guard (Luke Davis was a preferred walk-on), forcing Paige into the starting role from Day 1.

Paige was expecting to learn from Marshall for at least a season before he took over for UNC's assist king. But Marshall is making up for that with some one-on-one summer sessions with Paige.

He's also receiving pointers from former Tar Heel floor generals Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson.

I'd say Paige is making the most of his offseason.

Anyone who watched Paige and Johnson with an unbiased eye could see their obvious talents as mere freshmen. But viewers could also see they were held back by their lack of strength and experience at the collegiate level.

Paige and Johnson are ready to put those days behind them, and you can bet on these two showing up as sophomores. The Tar Heels will be contenders, and it will be because of the work these two put in during the offseason.


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