HOUSTON—After 4,502 minutes spent playing college basketball to date, Marcus Paige has reached his first Final Four. He is new to this, if little else in the sport, so North Carolina's senior guard can be amused by the experience: the gifts for the players, the locker room equipped with two arcade-style video games and, especially, the various images around town that promote the event using the mug of Tar Heels teammate and backup guard Nate Britt.
"Nate's everywhere," Paige said. "You can find a poster of Nate everywhere you look."
If this is a bit of an exaggeration, it is nevertheless telling that the choice for the face of UNC basketball is a choice at all. Not long ago, no one would have thought of the team without speculating on how far Paige could take it, particularly following an ascendant sophomore season in which he carried the Tar Heels to 24 wins before a loss to Iowa State in the Round of 32 of the NCAA tournament. For the next two years, the program would go as Paige went. And now, at the end of those two years, there are blissful ironies at work.
North Carolina is here precisely because it did not go as Paige goes. At the most important juncture of his basketball career, the 6' 2" guard is, by some measures, the least important he has been to this program since he was a dewy-eyed freshman.
In the year of the senior, it could be a formerly budding star—not one at his peak—who is one of the last left standing. The legacy of Paige may be set, in some senses, by not meeting expectations foisted upon him two springs ago. "Over the course of this year I've thought about [legacy] a lot," Paige said Thursday in a bustling NRG Stadium locker room. "A lot of guys get lost in the shuffle at Carolina if you're not a part of a championship team. If you ask any Carolina fan, they're going to tell you their favorite players are the Raymond Feltons, the Ty Lawsons, guys that were on championship teams. If you want to be remembered for a long time, this is the spot you have to get to. This is where you have to be successful."
The track of Paige's career once seemed inexorable. He was hurled into a starting role as a freshman after Kendall Marshall's somewhat unexpected early departure for the NBA—"I handed him the ball and said, 'All right, you got to make us go,'" Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said—and then catapulted into an All-America-caliber strata as a sophomore. He averaged 17.5 points and 4.2 assists in what Williams described as "as good a year as I've ever had a backcourt player play." But the production was almost self-defeating in a campaign that ended with that loss in the Round of 32. "My sophomore year, our offense kind of got jammed down to the point where if I wasn't ball-screening with James-Michael McAdoo, then we couldn't really get anything good going," Paige said.
Injuries undercut his junior season and a shooting slump plagued this one. So here Paige is, neither an auxiliary player for the Tar Heels nor the most essential cog on the roster. His raw scoring (12.3 points per game), effective field goal percentage (49.8%) usage rate (19%) and Win Shares total (3.8) are the lowest they've been since his freshman year (8.2 ppg, 44% eFG, 17.6% usage and 2.2 Win Shares, respectively). He isn't even the most important senior on the team; Paige freely concedes that is Brice Johnson, a 6' 10", 230-pound classmate who never diverged from an upward trajectory and was recently honored as a consensus first-team All-America.
All of it is a hard detour from the path everyone expected Paige to take two years ago. Yet it somehow brought him exactly where he wanted to be.
"Marcus can only do so much," said sophomore guard Joel Berry II, who was the team's second-leading scorer (12.8 points per game) this year. "I think he's done a great job of handling that and not trying to do anything outside of what he knows he can do. He's a smart player. He doesn't force anything. He's just playing within himself. And lately he's been knocking down shots. That's what we need. He peaked at the right time. We all know what Marcus can do."
What Paige can do is drain 17 three-pointers in his last six outings, after hitting just 31 in 18 conference games this season. Opening up the floor like that significantly increases North Carolina's odds of leaving Houston with a title. But it isn't the Tar Heels' only recourse, and there's a case to be made that the team wouldn't stand a chance at a championship if it were. Paige knows this—he is the one making the argument.
"I feel less pressure to take over a game," he said. "There are nights when we'll have six guys in double figures. I don't need to be scoring 20 points for us to be good."
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
A college basketball season defined by its upperclassmen produced a Final Four that is no different. Oklahoma senior Buddy Hield is the tournament's supernova. Syracuse's Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney have played more minutes this season than anyone left in the field, helping to give their program a surprising reprieve from the burden of NCAA sanctions. Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu comprise the backbone of a team that finally overcame its first-weekend pratfalls in this event, reshaping how the Wildcats are viewed from a national perspective.
Should it emerge from Houston as champion, North Carolina will do so with its own senior anchor hitting a peak: Johnson has averaged 17.1 points and 10.5 rebounds during his finest season yet. But there will be something perhaps more meaningful about Paige's story, if only because he was the player expected to provide deliverance. He was the one set to drive the run to another banner. And he isn't, at least not in the way most people figured, and he still abides cheerfully as his career winds to a close.
"I've been fortunate enough to get some individual accomplishments and stuff throughout my career," Paige said. "But they've never really been coupled with team accomplishments at a Carolina level: Getting to the Final Four. Winning a championship."
North Carolina fans sizing up championship potential two years ago figured they would appreciate Paige forever, because they figured he would leave as a champion. They didn't anticipate they would remember him in this context. They didn't anticipate that Paige would veer away from the presumed direction of his career, and that would be the most valuable thing he could do.
So there he was Thursday, talking about his snacking weaknesses of popcorn and Double Stuf Oreos, the sorts of things a senior discusses at a Final Four when every other possible angle has been exhausted over the last four years. There just isn't much left to say about Paige. In many ways, that's why UNC is here.