Thursday November 19th, 2015

There was concern about how Marcus Paige's absence would impact the top-ranked Tar Heels but not a whole lot of panic when North Carolina announced on Nov. 4 that the senior point guard would miss three to four weeks with a broken bone in his hand.

That’s largely because UNC’s schedule to start the season isn’t particularly daunting, that is, until a Dec. 1 showdown at home against No. 3 Maryland. It’s still unknown if Paige will be available for that game, but the general feeling at the time of the injury was that the Tar Heels could survive without Paige until that night without sweating too much.

Wofford put up a solid fight against North Carolina on Wednesday, entering halftime down only five before losing steam as the Heels took control in the second half. Familiar faces shined for UNC: forward Brice Johnson registered his third double-double in three games and Kennedy Meeks continued his strong start to the season with a 16-point, eight-rebound effort, but it’s the play of the backcourt that should ultimately have Chapel Hill most optimistic about its team’s ceiling.

It’s easy to say that the Heels simply need to survive without Paige until their senior leader can return and show why he was picked as Co-ACC Preseason Player of the Year. But that’s doing a disservice to the other guards on UNC’s roster. Paige is no doubt very special and, if he can stay healthy, will be a crucial part of this team’s success. But right now the Tar Heels are learning to play without Marcus Paige, and that kind of lesson could be invaluable in March even if Paige is the one leading the way then.

With Paige sidelined, sophomore Joel Berry II has taken the reins at point guard for North Carolina and has logged more minutes than any other Tar Heel through the first three games. As his role has expanded, so has his production. After averaging 4.2 points per game in 2014–15, Berry has scored 14, 15 and 16 points respectively to start this season to go along with a total of 12 assists, seven steals and nine turnovers. His play has helped UNC’s offense rank No. 4 on KenPom in adjusted efficiency, no doubt also aided by the sterling play of Meeks and Johnson down low.

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But Berry’s not the only guard on North Carolina’s roster stepping up in Paige’s absence. On a crowded court last season, Nate Britt saw his minutes decrease as a sophomore, but he’s making the most of the extra minutes available in the backcourt right now. Britt scored 15 and 17 against Temple and Fairfield, respectively, and is shooting an auspicious 67% (8-for-12) from three to start the season. His offensive rating on KenPom is 148.1, a mark that puts him just outside of the top 100 players in the country in that category.  

The rise of Berry shouldn’t come as a surprise if you believe head coach Roy Williams, who previously said that other than Paige, he’s “not sure anybody” played better in the preseason than Berry. It’s good news for the Tar Heels that he’s looked as good as advertised so far, and the continued strong play of Britt as well could go a long way toward North Carolina’s maturation.

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Roy Williams’ crew may not need Paige to beat the likes of Temple, Fairfield and Wofford, but these early season games provide a valuable opportunity for this team to grow and get better. That’s true for any team, but UNC has the advantage of bringing back largely the same group as last year and not needing to worry about integrating new key parts or team chemistry. One of the Heels’ main questions coming into this season was whether they could get enough shooting in the backcourt outside of Paige, and both Berry and Britt’s strong starts from the perimeter bode well for the future.

Berry’s continued growth is especially of importance, because if he can prove capable of producing at a starter-level against conference teams in a tough ACC, it will allow Paige to play off the ball more and concentrate on scoring. Additionally, having three adept ball handlers in Paige, Berry and Britt is quite a weapon, and one that few teams can match. UNC is a supremely talented offensive team, and it’s scary to think of how good it could be on that end if the backcourt load isn’t all on Paige’s shoulders.

Injuries are never what you want to see, but the improvement North Carolina makes without its star could pay dividends come February and March. In the meantime, the Tar Heels will hope to have Paige back sooner than later, as a team with him is still instantly better than one without.

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