Last March, things looked incredibly promising for the North Carolina Tar Heels, even after their third-round NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas. With a great looking group of incoming freshmen, the future of the team hinged on James Michael McAdoo's decision on whether to turn pro or not. Once he decided to come back to Chapel Hill for another year, everything was just peachy.
Then, the foundation of the backcourt started to crumble. Reggie Bullock, the team's best outside shooter, surprised everyone by deciding to turn pro after his junior year. Bullock was second on the team last year in threes, hitting 88, while averaging 14 points per game. His shooting splits were superb, as he shot 48 percent from the field, 77 percent from the foul line and 44 percent from three.
It would be quite a burden to overcome his loss and make up that production, and that burden would fall to PJ Hairston.
Of course, everyone is now familiar with the indefinite suspensions to Hairston and fellow guard/forward Leslie McDonald. Hairston was the bigger loss as he led the team in scoring (15 pts/game) and threes (89 total).
At 43/78/40, his shooting splits rivaled Bullock's as well. Throw in McDonald's 42 made three-pointers on 36 percent shooting, and nearly the entire Tar Heel outside threat was gone before the new season even began.
With the departure of Bullock and the absences of Hairston and McDonald, North Carolina is scrambling for an outside shooting threat, someone to keep defenses honest and someone who can hit a big shot when the team needs it most. That responsibility is falling on the shoulders of sophomore combo-guard Marcus Paige.
Paige ranked third on last year's team in made three-point shots with 45. He did not shoot a great percentage from behind the arc, but besides Paige and the three missing players, the rest of the team combined to make just eight three-point shots all season long. This had to fall on Paige's shoulders.
In UNC's first game of this season, Marcus looked the part perfectly. He hit four of his seven attempts from deep and seemed like a legitimate threat that defenses could not help off of. He must do this all year long, though, for North Carolina to be taken seriously as a powerhouse.
With all the big bodies inside and a freshman running the point, Marcus Paige the shooting guard is North Carolina's only hope from distance. This doesn't mean he has to approach 100 made threes, but until McDonald and Hairston are allowed back, he must be a 40 percent shooter from three.
He has to make wide open three-pointers. And he has to be able to knock one down every now and then when the shot clock is running down or the play clock is ticking away. Otherwise, if Paige stagnates from where he was as a freshman, suddenly defenses have it easy against UNC.
Much like Michigan State did to Kentucky in one of the early season epic matches of the year, when a defense isn't afraid of outside shooters, they pack it in. They leak defenders into the paint and help further off guards than they should be able to. This will turn into every opponent's playbook against North Carolina unless Marcus Paige can change that.
Now, we won't have evidence of his success either way for a few games. But after the Tar Heels' first five-game set prior to their Dec. 4 match-up against the aforementioned Michigan State Spartans, it will be clear whether Paige can be this type of player. If not, look for MSU to handle UNC with the same techniques they used in their Kentucky game. The results will not be pretty.