North Carolina needs help fast.
With their loss to Syracuse this past Saturday, the Tar Heels have matched the worst ACC start (0-3) in school history, which came in Dean Smith's final year (1996-97) as head coach.
Sure, earlier this season Carolina posted impressive wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. But the Tar Heels also fumbled and bumbled their way to three perplexing nonconference losses to Belmont, UAB and Texas.
Head coach Roy Williams has been open about how taxing this season has already been. Williams told Bleacher Report's Jason King that "the past six months has been the most difficult stretch of his Hall of Fame career."
With a substandard 10-6 record and a dismal conference opening, something needs to change quickly if Williams and his squad are going to rescue this ill-fated season.
The player who has the best chance to help right the ship is Marcus Paige.
He has carried a larger and different role than he expected when he came to Chapel Hill.
Though he was the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2012, Paige anticipated being an understudy for UNC's Kendall Marshall for at least one season. When Marshall entered the 2012 NBA draft, Paige was inserted into the Tar Heels' 2012-13 starting lineup from Day 1.
This year, Paige assumed that he would be setting up veteran wings P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, as well as junior power forward James Michael McAdoo. Instead, because of Hairston and McDonald's lengthy eligibility investigations, they were held out of the opening games of the season, and Paige was forced to move over to play the shooting guard position.
Over UNC's first 16 games, the 6'1" sophomore from Marion, Iowa, has been impressive, leading the Tar Heels in both scoring (17 PPG) and assists (4.3 APG).
Paige has been Carolina's catalyst in its big wins. He dropped 32 on Louisville and put up 23 on Kentucky. But he has also struggled in two of the Heels' most recent losses.
Paige shot 3-of-12, committed four turnovers and fouled out against Wake Forest. He also went 2-of-15 from the floor, 2-of-11 from beyond the arc and scored eight points against Miami.
So, it does not take much to see that, for this team, as Paige goes, so go the Tar Heels.
What does Paige need to do to help Carolina get back on track?
When Paige takes the ball forcefully to the hole, good things happen.
When he gets into the paint, Paige is an excellent distributor. He finds any of the many Tar Heels frontcourt players.
He also does a great job of drawing fouls. And when he gets to the line, Paige is money, hitting 91.9 percent of his free throws this season.
It is a good bet that UNC will see a steady diet of zone defenses through the remainder of this season. Paige still needs to break down opponents' defenses by clever dribble penetration rather than just settling and relying on shooting over the top of the zone.
Be More Selective
Paige is a good shooter. In the Tar Heels' 13 nonconference games, he shot 44.7 percent from the floor and 40.2 percent from beyond the arc.
In fact, Paige has made two-thirds of the team's shots from distance (36 of the 55 three-pointers) this season.
Unfortunately, it has been clank-city for Paige in the three ACC games. He has made only five of his 25 shots from downtown (20 percent).
Some of his missed three-point shots have been at the end of the games when he has tried to do anything to give UNC a chance. But he has also fired up more than his share of hasty jumpers.
He will help the Heels the most by keeping a level head and utilizing more sensible shot selection.
Be a Scorer First
Paige has done an outstanding job changing from running the point to playing off the ball as the team's shooting guard.
Though this seems like it would be an easy transition, it is not.
He has to fight his natural tendencies to be a playmaker and a setup man for his teammates.
As long as he is playing alongside freshman Nate Britt, Paige needs to look for his shots first and look to dish second.
Paige has had two of his best assist games (six against Wake Forest and eight against Miami) of the season during these opening ACC losses.
He does not need to turn into a selfish player or a ball hog. For a team that lacks confident scorers, Paige needs to stay focused on being a point producer.
Will UNC turn things around and make the 2014 NCAA tournament?
This Carolina team has the players to get on a roll and still make some noise in conference play. The Tar Heels are capable of beating any team that they face in the ACC.
They will need to rediscover their early season "mojo" that helped them win not one, not two but three huge games against some very talented teams.
That starts with Paige getting loose and playing with the confidence that he displayed in nonconference play.