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Marcus Paige was off to a scorching start this season as a sophomore. He was attacking the basket and setting the nets on fire from deep, reaching the 20-point mark five times in the first 10 games, which included a 32-point performance against Louisville.
In the five games since, Paige is averaging just 11.8 points and has converted just eight of his last 31 three-point attempts.
The reason for his recent slump is something both Williams and Paige are struggling to find an answer to. His 35.3 minutes per game are certainly a factor. That's 5.5 more than the next guy, James Michael McAdoo, and more than anyone Williams has coached. And this is a sophomore point guard who has been forced into a combo role with Hairston's ineligibility.
According to comments he made to Inside Carolina's Greg Barnes, Paige is shouldering the load.
"My teammates look for me to be aggressive," he said. "If I’m being aggressive and not making shots, that’s not helping us. I just have to do better. I’ve got to find a way to help the team instead of missing jump shots."
While that may be true, it would help if the team's leading scorer had a consistent sidekick to occupy defenses and help him—and the team—out of a rut.
It's not much different from the struggles we saw last season. For the bulk of the season, it was Reggie Bullock shouldering the load for the Tar Heels while defenses keyed in on McAdoo. Until Hairston emerged from the bench, the 'Heels looked lost in the half court.
Now, it's up to someone else to step in as a major contributor.
The problem is that there may not be another guy on the roster capable at this time.
McAdoo has been wildly inconsistent and still doesn't appear to have much of a post game. J.P. Tokoto has become a great piece on this team, but he is merely a pawn at this stage of his career with his limited skill set on offense. Leslie McDonald is having a hard time finishing inside, and his heat index from the perimeter seems to drop with the outside temperature.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed Brice Johnson could be that guy. But he has also been slumping on offense lately, and his body language hasn't been indicative of change.
The only solution is to play as one unit, which seems to be the Tar Heels' greatest deficiency in losses. Too often, Paige's teammates are looking for him to be the aggressor. And though he is the team's best scorer and its leader, guys can't be napping while he has the rock.
Paige can't score 32 points every game.
In the win over Michigan State, Paige had just 13 points. But four other Tar Heels landed in double-figures. Against Kentucky, they eventually needed his 23 points, but they led 33-30 at the half even though he had only scored two points before the break. McAdoo finished with 20 and Tokoto added another 15.
Individually, this team is lost. As one cohesive unit, the sky is the limit. No matter how much they may seem like it after five disappointing losses, the three biggest wins of the season were no fluke.