Paige lighting it up for North Carolina - at off guard

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CEDAR RAPIDS – Marcus Paige is getting used to it – kind of.

From the first time he stepped on a basketball floor in a competitive situation, he’s been a lead guard. Even on youth teams, playing with older kids, he always had the ball in his hands, bringing it up the floor and setting up his teammates

“I’ve played point my whole life,” the North Carolina sophomore said.

But he has been a combo guard this season for the Tar Heels, spending more time at the ‘2’ than the ‘1.’ He’s made the adjustment look easy.

The former Linn-Mar all-stater and 2012 Gazette Male Athlete of the Year helped the Tar Heels to the championship of last weekend’s Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament in Connecticut by scoring a career-high 26 points in a win over Richmond and topping that with 32 in an upset of third-ranked Louisville.

He was a unanimous selection as ACC Player of the Week. CBS’ named him its national player of the week.

”The first couple weeks were hard, very different for me playing in the exhibition games and (our) scrimmage and not being the point guard,” said Paige, in a telephone interview from Chapel Hill, N.C. “I’ve gotten used to it, adjusted. I’m starting to play more and more minutes doing both rather than just being a shooting guard. But, yeah, it really is weird.”

Paige is averaging a cool 22.4 points per game, shooting duplicate 53.1 percentages overall and from 3-point range. He averaged eight points last season as a freshman full-time point.

North Carolina is without leading scorer P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald (both suspended), so someone has had to try and fill the void offensively. Nate Britt has done fine handling point guard when Paige is off the ball.

The Tar Heels play Saturday at Alabama-Birmingham.

“I really haven’t had to look for my shot as much since high school,” he said. “We had a good group of scorers last year with Reggie Bullock (now with the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers), James Michael (McAdoo) and P.J. But this year we don’t have any of those guys right now, and I’m probably the best shooter on the roster currently. The coaches just told me to be aggressive and kind of get back to my high-school days. I’m trying to look to attack all the time.”

"I said last year that he can really shoot the basketball," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said on his weekly radio show. "He's the king of the "In-and-out" because it kept going in and out. I said, and you can go back and listen to everything, that he's going to be able to shoot the basketball. He was a scorer in high school. He scored 18 points in three minutes once in high school. If you can shoot, you can shoot."

Paige is the Metro’s all-time leading scorer, so he knows something about attacking and filling up the hoop. After winning a Class 4A championship with Linn-Mar in 2011, he was forced to provide more offense for the Lions as a senior and ended up leading the state in scoring (28.4 points per game).

He’s doing that same thing here, just at a much, much higher level.

“Yeah, that’s a fair comparison,” Paige said. “We don’t really have any shooting guards on our roster … so Coach looked at me as one of our better shooters, and we have a freshman, Nate, who is doing a great job at the point, so I’ve kind of just slid over to the shooting guard spot for now.”

Paige said he gained 10 to 15 much-needed pounds of muscle in the offseason, which has aided him greatly. He is more physically prepared.

He’s also more mentally prepared, a year wiser, as far as being part of one of college basketball’s blue-blood programs.

“This year, I’m a lot more comfortable with it just because I’ve been through the ringer one time already,” he said. “I’m not as surprised about certain things. At first, it was really weird to have a bad game and then have somebody on SportsCenter talk about it that night. You can’t really escape from having a bad game.”

That’s probably the most difficult thing about being a Tar Heel, he said.

“Part of it is the expectations of the fans,” he said. “It’s not for the faint-hearted, you know? You have to own up to it and accept it. The fans are so passionate. They’ll let you know. But other than that, the whole time commitment (has been difficult). You know you have to spend extra time outside of practice doing recovery stuff, doing strength stuff, working on your game, your skill set. If you don’t do that stuff, you’ll get left behind. It’s pretty much like playing professional sports, but also balancing your academics, your school work. It’s tough.”

Paige said the classroom stuff is going well as well. He’s majoring in public relations/journalism.

Thanksgiving Day was being spent at Williams’ house, eating turkey and all the trimmings.

“It’s been interesting, obviously,” Paige said of his first-plus year at what was his “dream school” since he was a youth. “We struggled big time last year early in the year, and then came together as a team at the end of the year and played more closely to what you’d expect from a Carolina team. We had high hopes for this year, then had some off-the-court issues. But it has been great. I love pretty much everything about the school, playing for a hall-of-fame coach. It really is turning out to be everything I expected it to be.”


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