North Carolina senior guard Marcus Paige received the homecoming he deserved on Saturday afternoon, but not the one he wanted.
The Marion, Iowa native grew up just 60 miles from his birthplace of Cedar Rapids, and where he watched from the bench as Northern Iowa upset his No. 1 Tar Heels, 71–67.
Paige has been sidelined since the preseason with a fractured metacarpal in his right hand and was unable to play, which is all the more agonizing given UNC was playing at Northern Iowa as a gesture from coach Roy Williams and the coaching staff to honor Paige by playing a game close to his hometown. Before tip-off, Paige was honored by the public address announcer at a sold-out McLeod Center and was welcomed with open arms, but the warm sentiments quickly faded.
Northern Iowa in recent years has become a powerful mid-major and a nuisance to many of the top Power 5 teams (See: Jayhawks, Kansas). And when UNC was struggling over a horrendous 12-minute stretch in the second half in which it was outscored 29–8, when it needed its senior floor general to do anything—make a big shot, drive the lane and find a shooter, come up with a crucial steal to stop the bleeding—there was nothing he could do.
While college basketball doesn’t use advanced metrics to determine wins above replacement, there may not be a more valuable player to his team than Paige. He is the engine, he is the lifeblood, he is the closer.
Consider that his replacement, sophomore Joel Berry II, had just five points on 2-of-7 shooting and three turnovers in 26 minutes. Consider that his Panthers counterpart, Wes Washpun, went off for 21 points and eight assists on 9-of-15 shooting. And consider UNC’s penultimate possession, when it was trailing by three points with 15 seconds remaining: Berry fired up a contested three-pointer that missed, and when he got the ball back six seconds later on an offensive rebound by Isaiah Hicks, Berry turned it over.
With Paige running the show, North Carolina likely doesn’t blow its nine-point halftime lead and likely heads back to Chapel Hill with a win.
North Carolina struggled at home for much of its win over Wofford on Wednesday and many of those same issues—poor three-point shooting, double-digit turnovers, opponents shooting above 40% from the field—followed it to Iowa. Only this time, the Panthers made the Heels pay for them.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Williams’s team right now. It’s a talented group, but it’s relatively young, with Brice Johnson the lone senior in the starting lineup with Paige’s absence. Justin Jackson exploded for 25 points, but he cannot be counted upon for consistent contributions, as he’s not a bona fide scorer and averaged fewer than 11 points per game last season. These types of games are important not only for coaches to see the mettle their teams possess, but also for players to see how they react to adversity.
North Carolina folded under pressure on Saturday, and when the ship started sinking in the second half, its captain—literally and figuratively—wasn’t there to save it.
UNC will respond; Williams is too good and too experienced a coach to let this loss linger. But it does serve as a reminder of how good Paige is and how underappreciated, even as a preseason All-American, he can be when he’s taken away.
Not all homecomings are fair, but they are honest. And who knows, on March 17 and 19, 2016, Paige could potentially find himself back in Iowa, this time in Des Moines, for the first and second rounds of the 2016 NCAA tournament. And if he’s on the floor, count on Paige to earn the homecoming he wants.