North Carolina's Marcus Paige is having an outstanding sophomore season. He has taken on a much bigger role on this year's team than just about anyone expected.
As the 6'1" point guard finished his first year in Chapel Hill, many people looked forward to the 2013-14 season that might feature a Tar Heel perimeter trio of Paige, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston. However, Bullock bolted for the NBA and Hairston was declared ineligible.
Instead of primarily being a facilitator to these talented wings, plus junior forward James Michael McAdoo, Paige has become Carolina's lead scorer (17.2 PPG) while still being UNC's main playmaker (4.5 APG; 2.2 AST/TO).
Based on tweets from Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball), Paige is not only the Heels' "big gun," he is also one of this year's Atlantic Coast Conference top players:
UNC's Marcus Paige is the only player in the conference to win ACC Player of the Week honors four times this season #GoHeels— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 3, 2014
Marcus Paige is the only player ranked in the top four in the ACC in scoring and assists. Averaging 17.5 points & 4.6 assists. #GoHeels— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 1, 2014
North Carolina (23-7, 13-4) has won 12 straight ACC contests going into its final regular season game against their arch enemy, Duke. What would create a fantastic finish to Paige's superb second season at Carolina would be a breakout game against the Blue Devils.
Up until now, the Marion, Iowa native has not had an exceptional outing against Coach K's crew. In two losses as a freshman, Paige scored a total of eight points on 3-for-15 shooting. He handed out seven assists and committed six turnovers. Not exactly the kind of performance that forces teams to extensively game plan how they will stop that type of production.
In his first game this year against the Dookies, Paige had a solid showing, scoring 13 points and dishing out four assists. Good, but not great.
Is Paige ready to go into Cameron Indoor Stadium this Saturday and tear it up? Will he personally be dominant and lead the Tar Heels to a regular season sweep against their local rivals?
Let's look at why Paige is ready for a breakout game against Duke.
Came Up Big Against Ranked Opponents
Paige has played consistently well against the best teams on Carolina's schedule.
In six games against Top 25 teams, he has averaged 19.3 PPG and 3.3 APG. He is the main reason that the Heels are an impressive 5-1 against their highly ranked opponents.
In the fifth game of the season, UNC faced the defending national champs, Louisville. Paige put up 32 huge points, connecting on 9-of-12 shots from the field and hitting all 11 of his free throws.
He is playing with an exceptionally high level of confidence in these big games. While Cameron is a unique venue, and many good players don't excel there, Paige has not faltered when the bright lights are shining.
Taken on a Road Warrior Mentality
UNC has gone 6-4 in 10 road games this year. In those games, Paige has scored 15.9 PPG and handed out 4.6 APG.
The best game of his collegiate career came away from the Smith Center. Last week, on the road, against North Carolina State, Paige went berserk, scoring 35 points including 7-of-12 from beyond the arc. To say that he got better as the game went on is a huge understatement. He took over after the break, scoring 31 of his 35 points.
He also grabbed six rebounds and dished five assists against the WolfPack.
When the ball goes up against the Blue Devils, Paige will be ready to play and will not back down.
Ready to Make a Big Play when the Game is On the Line
Some players step back when crunch time comes. Others players step up in the closing moments of games. Paige has become the Tar Heels "Go to Guy," ready to do whatever it takes to win.
When the Heels faced the Blue Devils two weeks ago, Paige scored all 13 of his points in the second half. His two biggest baskets came in the last three minutes of the game, sealing the exciting W.
When UNC traveled to NC State, Paige hit a driving basket with 0.9 seconds left in overtime, putting the Heels ahead and winning the game.
Against Notre Dame, Paige blocked a Fighting Irish field goal attempt in the game's final play to preserve a Carolina home victory.
We do not know whether or not this battle will come down to a final play. If it does, look for Paige to step into the fray and make a game-determining play just as he has done so many times this season.
Both Duke and North Carolina have an abundant supply of talented players who could be the game's MVP.
Paige is ready to have a monster game against his school's biggest rival.
If he goes off on Saturday, North Carolina will pick up an important win to increase their confidence and build momentum heading into the post-season.