No. 16 North Carolina got off to a slow start to the season, but point guard Marcus Paige will keep the Tar Heels in contention for the ACC title.
Nobody knows if or when P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald will return to the team. Both have been suspended indefinitely, and there hasn't been a timetable for their returns. It will be tough to replace their offense, but Paige has the talent to be a prolific scorer and keep the team in contention.
Early in the season, the Tar Heels (4-1) have been inconsistent. They have struggled to put away Holy Cross and Richmond, and they lost at home to Belmont because of poor free-throw shooting. On the positive side, North Carolina knocked off No. 3 Louisville thanks to a big performance by its point guard.
There are several players on the team capable of scoring. James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto can all score. However, when it comes down to crunch time there is only one player who Tar Heel fans can count on: Paige.
North Carolina lost to Belmont because it made only 22 of 48 free throws, but Paige made four of his five shots from the line. The Tar Heels are shooting only 62.1 percent from the line as a team. Paige is shooting 93.1 percent, so the ball needs to be in his hands at the end of games.
Right now the Tar Heels are in the toughest part of their schedule. They are in a five-game stretch in which every other game is against a top-three opponent—then-No. 3 Louisville, No. 1 Michigan State and No. 3 Kentucky. If the team is going to survive its schedule, Paige has to keep up his great play.
Last year, Paige was forced into the starting role after Kendall Marshall left early for the NBA. Paige struggled as a freshman. He averaged only 8.2 points, 4.6 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game. He shot only 35.6 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from three-point range.
Offense hasn't been a problem for the point guard this season.
The sophomore is currently shooting 53.1 percent from the field and from downtown. His rebounding has increased slightly to 2.8 boards per game, but his assists have dropped to 3.6 per game. Part of the reason for the drop is the absence of Hairston and McDonald.
Paige simply took over against the Cardinals on Sunday. He scored a career-high 32 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including 3-of-5 from downtown, and he sank all 11 free throw attempts. The rest of the starters combined for 27 points.
He is averaging 22.4 points per game this season, so Carolina has someone to turn to on offense. Paige is the team's only three-point threat right now. He has made 17 of the team's 19 three-pointers this season.
The point guard leads the team in just about every offensive category. He has taken a big step forward this year, and he has led his team to at least 80 points in four of the team's first five games.
The Tar Heels are expecting big things out of McAdoo, Johnson, Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks this season. Until those and other players step up especially around the perimeter and at the line, Paige has to carry the load. He is good enough to take over a game and put teams away.
Duke has also struggled early in the season. Florida State and Syracuse have looked strong so far. The Tar Heels have as good of a shot as any team to challenge the Blue Devils this season.
The ACC is going to be extremely competitive this season, and with Paige stepping up on offense, the Tar Heels have a legitimate chance to win the conference.
*All stats are via ESPN.com