Weekend Viewer’s Guide: UNC will go as far as Marcus Paige takes it

After bursting onto the scene as a sophomore and winning All-ACC and All-American honors, it’s been a pretty steady decline for Marcus Paige for reasons that are largely out of his control.

He was still named to the All-ACC third team as a junior, but a foot injury hampered his production and play until late in the year when he finally looked like the Paige of old. But this season started off with yet another injury — this time a broken hand right before the season started — and he’s never quite been able to get it going consistently since re-entering the lineup.

One problem this season has been the lack of stability in his position. Back in his successful sophomore season, Paige largely played point guard. This season though, Joel Berry has started every game at point guard, leaving Paige off-ball. Paige has moved to the point occasionally this season when Berry is on the bench, but mostly has been out of position this year in order to accommodate getting more of their best players on the floor at once.

And honestly, it just hasn’t worked. It’s part of the reason North Carolina has looked so underwhelming at times, and it’s part of the reason Paige seems to be playing worse than he has at any point of his storied career.

For his part, Paige told the Fayetteville Observer that he felt more comfortable with the ball in his hands after a win over Miami last weekend where Berry was in foul trouble.

“I didn’t shoot the ball well today or anything, but I felt like a completely different player today, being able to have the ball in my hands and make some plays and pitch the ball ahead in transition,” Paige said. “It was weird. It felt good.”

He followed that game up though with another down performance against North Carolina State where he only scored 10 points and dished out two assists. He’s now only averaging 11 points per game in ACC play while shooting 37 percent from the field. If Carolina wants to go anywhere this season, they’re going to have to get better production from their lead guard.

Does that involve moving him back to the point guard spot? He’d probably be best off there, but as one of the most team/program-oriented players in college hoops, he probably won’t ask the staff to consider a move either. But if he’s clearly more comfortable as the lead ball-handler, and he’s shown in the past he can be an All-American-caliber player at the position, at what point does the staff consider playing him there to get the most out of this team?

It’s obviously a tough nut to crack, but we’re going to get another chance to see North Carolina against elite competition this weekend when it takes on Virginia (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). If Paige plays off-ball again and the Tar Heels fall to the Cavaliers to make the ACC a true race for the top spot again, it might be worthwhile to consider a move.

Because the key here is this: North Carolina is going to go as far as Marcus Paige takes them. Brice Johnson is going to be there. Justin Jackson is coming on of late and looks like he’s figured things out. The big wings and big men have provided nice sparks when they need them. But Paige is the difference maker for them in the NCAA Tournament, where having an experienced guard who can take over and control the game is so important. Whether it’s a team adjustment or a player adjustment, Paige needs to start building some momentum toward the postseason now.

Marcus Paige needs to play better for North Carolina. (USATSI)
Marcus Paige needs to play better for North Carolina. (USATSI)

Second-best game: No. 11 Louisville at No. 12 Miami (Fla.) (2 p.m. ET, ESPN3)

This is essentially an elimination game for the ACC regular season title. If North Carolina loses, the winner of this game will be tied with the Tar Heels for the lead in the league. Louisville picked up a huge road win against Pittsburgh earlier this week, and simply how cool would it be if the Cardinals could pick up a win and win a share of the ACC title given how this group was unjustly barred from the NCAA Tournament? To do it, they’re going to need to win another tough road game, against a Miami team that is also chasing the title. This one will be fun to watch.

Third-best game: No. 9 Arizona at No. 22 Utah (2 p.m. ET, ESPN)

There’s a weird thing going on where Utah seems to be one of the more underrated teams in the country. The Utes have one of the clear two best resumes in the West, are trending toward a top-four seed and have a potential All-American in Jakob Poeltl. A win against Arizona would probably push the Utes into the national consciousness, but that’s easier said than done. The Wildcats have a deep team that can really score, and have improved defensively over the past month. Plus, Sean Miller’s group needs a marquee road win. Tough game to call, here.

Fourth-best game: No. 10 Maryland at No. 20 Purdue (4 p.m. ET, ESPN)

This one is simple: the Terps need a win on the road to buoy their resume. Their best road win right now is Wisconsin, followed by…Ohio State? If they lose this game, they’ll have a home/road split against Purdue, a win against Iowa, and that Wisconsin win, and that’s basically it for teams projected to make the field of 68. Maryland has a pretty low floor with its seeding at this point that I don’t think many are recognizing due to the talent on the roster. A No. 6 or 7 seed isn’t out of the question if they fall to both Purdue and Indiana at the end of the year on the road. This is an important one for them.

Fifth-best game: No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 25 Texas (2 p.m. ET, CBS)

Both of these teams are in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament, obviously. Oklahoma could use another road win to push their resume into the discussion for a No. 1 seed. Texas has lost three of five in the rough and tumble Big 12, but could push things back to the right side of the ledger by holding their home floor. The Longhorns fell to Oklahoma on the road on a Buddy Hield buzzer-beater in their first matchup, so hopefully we can get a repeat game here.

Can Buddy Hield give an encore of his heroics in the first Texas-Oklahoma game? (USATSI)
Can Buddy Hield give an encore of his heroics in the first Texas-Oklahoma game? (USATSI)

Sixth-best game: No. 16 Kentucky at Vanderbilt (4 p.m. ET, CBS)

This is the game that will define Vanderbilt’s season. They need this win to continue to build a resume worthy of the NCAA Tournament. At 17-11, they’ve won four of their last five games against lesser competition. Talent-wise, the Commodores are better than that record portrays. They have two potential first-round picks, and another potential pick in the future. That’s what makes them a dangerous foe for a Kentucky team that has struggled on the road this season. The key matchup here is Tyler Ulis versus Wade Baldwin. If Ulis gets the better of that matchup, the Wildcats will have a good shot.

Bubble games

  • Texas Tech should feel pretty good about where it is on the bubble, but the Red Raiders travel to No. 2 Kansas. With a win, Kansas will move to No. 1 in the polls Monday.
  • Cincinnati needs to avoid a loss to East Carolina on the road to stay on the right side of the bubble.
  • Ditto for fellow AAC team Temple, who is at home against UCF.
  • Butler goes on the road to take on a tricky Georgetown team that has stumbled recently, but still has the talent to pick up surprising wins.
  • Dayton should feel relatively comfortable, but the Flyers aren’t playing well right now and need to avoid losing to a Rhode Island team without its two best players.
  • VCU and George Washington have a critical matchup in Washington D.C. that will tell us a lot about the A-10’s bubble picture. It’s not an elimination game by any means, but the winner will certainly have a leg up on a bid.
  • Syracuse is at home against Cat Barber and NC State. Need to avoid a bad loss there.
  • No. 1 Villanova is on the road against Marquette. The Golden Eagles aren’t quite on the bubble yet, but a win over Villanova and a big-time late run could push them there.
  • Illinois State defeated Wichita State earlier this season, and the Shockers can ill-afford another loss like that on their resume.
  • Mississippi State has been really frisky lately, and takes on South Carolina at home. The Gamecocks should be in the field at this point, but this is a landmine they need to avoid for their seeding.
  • Florida State is on the periphery of the bubble discussions. Lose to No. 23 Notre Dame at home, and they’ll fall off of it completely.
  • Providence is another team that should feel relatively safe, but losing to DePaul for the second time this season is a good way to make people forget about all of the good things the Friars did early in the season.
  • Alabama needs to avoid a home loss to Auburn in a rivalry game.
  • San Diego State has already clinched the Mountain West, but is still on the outside looking in due to its poor non-conference performance. A loss to Boise State might end their at-large chances if they fall in the Mountain West tournament.
  • Gonzaga’s final game of the regular season comes against BYU in Provo. The Zags might already be beyond saving in terms of the bubble, but a loss there would certainly end things and likely knock them out of the WCC title race.
  • Florida takes on LSU on the road. I don’t know that I can recommend anyone actually watch what will assuredly be an ugly game, but Florida could really use this road win.
  • Saint Mary’s can clinch at least a share of the WCC with a road win at San Francisco. A loss though would likely knock them off the bubble.

SUNDAY

A Big East Matinee: No. 5 Xavier at Seton Hall (12:30 p.m. ET, FS1)

Xavier has pushed itself into the No. 1 seed discussion after a big win against Villanova earlier this week. However, this is a much bigger game for the Pirates, who could come close to clinching an NCAA Tournament bid with a win here against Xavier. The Pirates are sitting at 20-7 with nice wins over Wichita State, Providence and Creighton, but probably need one more against an elite opponent to feel safe. Isaiah Whitehead has been terrific recently, scoring over 20 points per game in his last eight and generally dominating games in a way that could make the Hall a team no one wants to face in the postseason.

Xavier has put itself in an excellent position going forward. (USATSI)
Xavier has put itself in an excellent position going forward. (USATSI)

An ACC Bubble game: No. 16 Duke at Pittsburgh (2 p.m. ET, CBS)

This isn’t a must-win for Pittsburgh, but man is the Panthers’ resume thin right now with their best wins coming on the road against Notre Dame and Syracuse. The Blue Devils rebounded nicely from a tough loss to Louisville over the weekend with a win against Florida State, and seem to be rounding into form late this year despite the injuries that have deprived them of depth. The key here will be Michael Young against Marshall Plumlee. Young is a smaller, quicker center who can get bigs into foul trouble. Plumlee could have some issues with him, and he’s largely Duke’s only playable big.

Another critical game: USC at California (8 p.m. ET, FS1)

Both of these teams should feel relatively good about their places in the tournament, but USC’s position seems to be much more precarious given the way it’s playing. The Trojans have dropped four of five, and have significant road and defensive problems. A win here would basically clinch a bid, but a loss puts them in a position where they might need to sweep the Oregon schools at home next week. On the other side, California is peaking at the right time and looks to be a legitimate threat into the postseason.

A few bubble games:

  • Ohio State is in a must-win scenario down the stretch. If the Buckeyes beat Iowa, they’ll still have a shot at the Tourney. If not, it’s likely over for them unless they win the Big Ten Tournament.
  • Wisconsin picked up a huge win at the aforementioned Iowa this week, and could basically clinch a tourney bid by winning at the Kohl Center over Michigan.
  • Tulsa has done a nice job of playing its way onto the bubble. They need to avoid the landmine that is Memphis on the road.
  • Washington is also in must-win mode, and gets a chance at a huge road win against Oregon. Get that, and we’ll talk about their NCAA chances.
  • Connecticut needs to avoid a home loss to Houston.
  • Creighton needs to avoid a home loss to St. John’s.
  • Colorado needs to avoid a home loss to Arizona State. Three teams there, all in the same position of skipping over a bad defeat.

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