CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Marcus Paige had targeted his return from a broken right hand in time to play in No. 9 North Carolina's matchup with No. 2 Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It appears the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference co-player of the year is right on schedule.
The school issued a news release Monday announcing that the senior guard is expected to take the court for the first time this season on Tuesday night. That depended on him making it through a practice later in the afternoon without any setbacks, though both Paige and coach Roy Williams sounded confident that Paige would be ready.
''If he feels good, he'll start,'' Williams said Monday at a regularly scheduled news conference. ''I think he earned that over three years.''
Williams said he wasn't sure whether Paige would start over sophomore point Joel Berry II or sophomore wing Theo Pinson, though he said he was leaning toward Pinson for now.
Paige hasn't played this season after breaking a bone in his non-shooting hand on Nov. 3, an injury projected to keep him out three to four weeks.
The Marion, Iowa native said last month that he was getting daily questions on campus about whether he would be ready for the Maryland game. He went through a full practice Saturday, and Paige said the only time he thought about the injury was when he looked down and noticed the padding protecting his hand.
''I'm not putting really any pressure on myself,'' Paige said. ''It's my first game back, I'm probably not going to be `peak Marcus,' but I'd like to be. And if I am, it's great. But I'm not expecting myself to be perfect tomorrow. ... I'm just happy to be back playing.''
He was coming off a season in which he played through nagging foot problems most of the year, prompting him to say he didn't want to rush back and risk not being 100 percent healthy.
Paige's absence was a rarity for UNC considering he had missed one game for his career and averaged 34 minutes over the past two seasons as both floor leader and big-shot maker.
The Tar Heels (5-1) were the preseason No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 as well as the ACC favorite with nine of their top 10 starters back. But UNC stumbled at Northern Iowa in what was supposed to be Paige's homecoming game.
Tuesday's matchup pits UNC against one of its fellow founding members of the ACC in Maryland, who bolted for the Big Ten before last season.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org