UNC needs Marcus Paige at his best now to remain in No. 1 seed hunt

North Carolina remains among the most intriguing teams in college basketball this season. You had to figure it would go something like this for the Tar Heels, because UNC is almost never boring. It seems like this program consistently has one reason or another — good, bad or otherwise — to bring attraction to itself.

For now, the preseason No. 1 team in the country has fallen to No. 11 in the rankings after dropping a controversial game on the final shot against Texas last weekend. Five weeks in, the Tar Heels are hitting skids on the regular. They played their first six tilts without their best player, Marcus Paige, and now are without their steadfast big man, Kennedy Meeks, for a few weeks. That’s unfortunate, because we’re being robbed of seeing UNC at full strength, meaning it’s getting harder to truly evaluate, and enjoy, this team at its best.

Our closest look? That amazing 89-81 Dec. 1 home dub over Maryland (another team with national title hopes). That game showed us why North Carolina can win a championship this season, but it’s the only game of that type for the Heels so far in 2015-16. Meeks has a bone bruise in his knee, something he’d been dealing with a few games before getting shut down earlier this week. It’s not determined when he’ll be back.

Until then, UNC faces an interesting outlook. Its next game comes on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the CBS Sports Classic. UCLA, ranked 22nd in the country, is the opponent. The Bruins own wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga, plus losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest. It’s an oracular team — similar to UNC in that regard. Steve Alford’s guys can absolutely beat Carolina.

Saturday’s game in Brooklyn is arguably the most compelling game in college basketball this weekend.

This is the last significant out-of-league game for both teams this season. Given each team’s standing, UNC needs it more. Roy Williams’ group has two losses, both of them on the road, by a combined six points. They came to good teams, not great ones (Northern Iowa and UT). Paige wasn’t there for the UNI collapse, a game that saw Williams’ team surrender a 16-point second half lead. It’s hard to fault UNC for the Texas loss; you could argue Javan Felix did not truly get the shot off in time, and you could also argue Texas should have been called for a foul on Paige on that last play. If either of those things go UNC’s way, the Heels are 9-1 and this story probably isn’t getting written.

But reality is this team is 8-2, and if UCLA beats shorthanded North Carolina on Saturday afternoon at the Barclays Center, it very well could mean the preseason No. 1 team in the country will be way behind the field for a No. 1 seed come March. Here’s why. In falling to 8-3, UNC’s losses would force it to drop behind at least these 15 teams in the chase for the top line: Michigan State, Kansas, Iowa State, Duke, Xavier, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Purdue, Villanova, Miami, Arizona, Baylor, George Washington and yes, even Maryland, whose only loss came to UNC. That’s a lot of ground to make up, and I didn’t even include one-loss squads like Louisville, West Virginia and Butler.

Not only would UNC have three Ls, the inevitable crunch of ACC play could mean UNC is vying for the second line. The Tar Heels are no given to win the ACC, not with Duke, Virginia and Miami’s talent all in the mix. Failing to get a 1 seed isn’t the worst thing, and you might be wondering why we’re already talking top line in mid-December. Simply put: Statistics suggest you’re twice as likely to reach the Final Four as a No. 1 seed than a No. 2. Saturday’s game seems to hold significance for down the road, and don’t believe a loss to the Bruins would absolve UNC in the minds of the selection committee because of Meeks’ absence. It will be taken into account, sure, but it’s probably unlikely to have much impact in the way of protecting UNC down the way.

All of this means UNC will need Paige to be at his best, running a group that ranks third in offensive efficiency and clipping 118 points per 100 possessions on KenPom. Paige has to remain aggressive. He’s UNC’s best shooter, its clear leader, best defender in the backcourt and its best overall player. If he’s not at his best, the team can’t be. Williams knows that.

If you missed UNC’s terrific 96-72 home win over middling Tulane on Wednesday night, the Heels had 30 assists on 36 field goals. Tremendously efficient. Here’s what else happened: Brice Johnson had 25 points. Joel Berry had nine assists. Justin Jackson had seven assists. Luke May had five rebounds.

All of those achievements were career-bests. All of those achievements catalyzed by Paige being on the floor. He changes everything, and without Meeks available for the couple of weeks, Paige is not going to have to carry this team, but he needs to counsel it. He’s good enough for the task. Roy Williams told me on Thursday he believes this is the first time in his career where he’s had his best backcourt player go down, and then one of his most important frontcourt players out for injury right after.

Does it mean UNC will be better for it come February?

“I say no, I’d really like to have my best players,” Williams said.

No Meeks means UNC big men Johnson and Joel James get to bruise with UCLA’s Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh. That will be something to watch, but Paige is the key. He’s putting up 17.3 points and 4.8 assists. Chances are the Tar Heels are going to round into superb form in about eight weeks from now. They’ll always be considered dangerous. But taking on another close loss Saturday will probably decay UNC’s résumé. Saturday looms large for the short-term morale of this team and the long-term prospects of landing in March where it began in November: at No. 1.

Roy Williams, left, needs Marcus Paige to play at his best until UNC is at full strength. (USATSI)


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