With sixteen games in the books and fifteen to go in the regular season let's take a look at how the individual players have fared so far starting with the guards.
Marcus Paige got off to a fast and somewhat surprising start by seizing upon the opportunity opened up by the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald to become the team's primary scoring option. Paige was nothing short of sensational in wins against Louisville and in the second half versus Kentucky. However an examination of Paige's FG% in all games shows a player that can be a little streaky. The sophomore guard opened the season with five straight games of shooting no worse than 46% from the floor culminating with a 9-12 effort against Louisville. Paige then shot below 40% in five of the next six games with the aforementioned second half performance versus Kentucky being the notable exception. Paige bounced back to shot 50% or better versus Northern Kentucky and UNCW before the train really went off the rails with back-to-back games of 25% or worse shooting. Against Syracuse, Paige went 7-16 with was better but also included a pair of garbage baskets in the final minute.
The stats tell a story that is fairly evident when watching the games. During the first five games Paige excelled against a certain level of competition and no one was accounting for him. After he lit Louisville up for 32 points, teams took notice especially since there was time for proper scouting and preparation. The subsequent 11 games has seen Paige fairly well defended. with his 10-18 shooting from three against Kentucky and Texas being his best effort in that span. Aside from those games Paige has struggled a bit. Fatigue could be factor not to mention players tend to have up and down games.
It is also worth noting that Paige is seeing far less opportunities at the free throw line. Through the first 11 games, Paige shot 65 free throws or 5.9 attempts per game. In the trio of games vs Kentucky, Texas and Davidson, Paige was 26-26 at the line. Since then? Paige has nine free throw attempts in five games or less than two attempts per game. For a player who shoots over 90% from the line, being aggressive and getting fouled needs to be a greater priority. Productive drives to the basket also can lead to better looks from three as defenders need to account for it.
UNC is still very much a "as Paige goes, so go the Tar Heels" team which is why Paige really needs to get his shooting performances closer to what they were earlier in the season. With UNC at 0-3 in the ACC, the Tar Heels need to string together some wins and a hot shooting Paige could certainly propel them that way.
After serving a nine game suspension for taking improper benefits, McDonald returned to the lineup against Texas on December 18th hitting 4-9 three pointers and combining with Marcus Paige to give UNC two legitimate three point shooting threats. McDonald's shooting versus Texas provided some hope that perhaps the fifth year senior would provide enough perimeter scoring to take the pressure of off Marcus Paige.
That hasn't been the case.
Since that game McDonald has made two or more threes just twice in six games. Still, McDonald was fairly effective on offense scoring in double figures in three of his first four games. Then ACC play kicked off and McDonald, like Paige, had trouble making any shots. McDonald recorded season highs in shot attempts in the losses to Wake Forest and Miami whole shooting 25% or worse from the floor.
The conventional thinking indicated the addition of another perimeter scoring threat would free Paige up from being the sole focus of opposing defenses. While that might be happening, it certainly isn't reflected in the numbers. If anything, Paige's struggles in ACC play has led to the theory that perhaps McDonald's return was disruptive. The merit in this point lies in the fact McDonald had 13 shot attempts to Paige's 12 against Wake Forest while playing six fewer minutes. In the loss to Miami, Paige shot the ball 15 times in 38 minutes, McDonald had 12 attempts in just 24 minutes. The quality of the shot and it's place within the flow off the offense are other questions raised with McDonald's play. While McDonald's return would require some acclimation, seven games seems like more than enough time to get everyone on the same page.
In addition to his shooting woes, McDonald has been a question mark on the defensive end. The fifth year senior has fouled out twice since his return and is averaging 3.4 fouls per game in just over 23 minutes a contest on the court. That is 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes or put more simply McDonald would likely foul out every game if he were playing Marcus Paige's minutes.
Regardless of how poorly McDonald has played at times, UNC still needs him to be an effective contributor. In fact, the key for McDonald should be raising his level of play on the defensive end and let his production on the offensive end come to him within the execution. Right now McDonald is pressing too much on one end and committing too many lapses on the other to be truly helpful to anyone right now.
Nate Britt, like Marcus Paige before him, was thrust into a role he was never intended to play. When Britt showed up during the summer, the assumption was that he would go through the 2013-14 season as the primary backup to Marcus Paige at point guard. Then the Summer of P.J. happened and UNC lost a key wing player for the season leaving Roy Williams with little choice but start inexperienced freshman point guard yet again.
In that respect, Britt probably shouldn't be judged too harshly. At the same time this is North Carolina basketball which means Britt has to step up in a big way to help the team any way he can. To his credit he has had some nice moments. Britt was 13 points and six assists in the win at Michigan State. In the win over Kentucky, Britt scored eight points including a couple of critical baskets when the game was still very much a back-and-forth affair.
With Britt this season has been about a glimpse here or a peek there into his full potential which should be a solid(though not great) point guard. He has quickness and pushes the basketball the way Roy Williams wants. He is a capable defender though his size has put him at a disadvantage against bigger guards. For the most part, he is a good fit into the system even if he isn't making the impact he needs to make to really push the team through the Paige/McDonald poor shooting patches.
And that is sort of where the season so far comes up short for Britt. If he was just a backup to Paige and UNC had Hairston then all we would be talking about here is Britt needing to cut down on his turnovers. As a backup point guard the expectation is to not hurt the team and help it where you can. As the starting point guard, Britt is probably still stuck in that mentality a little too much for his or the team's own good. Not that Britt should force the action or take ill-advised shots. There is already enough of that going on to compound it with a freshman point guard doing it also. However, if UNC is going to sufficiently recover from the 0-3 ACC start, Britt has to impact the game even if it doesn't get reflected in the box score. UNC's season lies with the play of Paige and other key contributors but getting more games from Britt like the one he played at Michigan State would be a huge boost going forward.