Following the 72-71 win over Louisville during which Marcus Paige hit the game winning layup with eight seconds left, the junior guard said he had jokingly told the his teammates, "I'm back."
As it turns out, what Paige said as a joke may actually be true, at least in the five games since.
After being rather up and down for much of the season, the past five games have seen Paige really lock in. With the exception of his eight point 3-10 shooting night against Virginia Tech, Paige has been every bit the player people expected heading into the season. In two games he has hit at least four threes and in of the past five games, Paige has dished out eight or more assists.
While it's probably just coincidence Paige went on this nice little run following his "I'm back" statement, these five games have coincided with the absence of Joel Berry from the lineup. A breakdown of the numbers shows a stark difference in Paige's level of play since Berry went out with a groin injury.
|Non-Conf.||Conf.||With Berry||Without Berry||Total|
Paige's non-conference slate wasn't great. It wasn't horrible but it certainly was below the expected standard. Both the two point and three point shooting suffered as did his free throws where he had been very reliable last season. Conference play has marked an improvement but it's important to remember 5/8 of the league play sample size is games without Berry. Over the recent five game stretch Paige has been lights out from three, taking care of the basketball, facilitating the offense and hitting free throws.
Those numbers aren't necessarily tied to Berry but Paige's minutes played are. In the first 16 games of the season, Paige averaged about 30 mpg. Three point guards on the roster allowed Roy Williams to rest Paige more. In the five games without Berry, Paige has averaged 35 mpg. On the surface that seems less than ideal but last season, Paige had just one game he played less than 30 minutes. It is possible Paige has a better rhythm playing more minutes not to mention it may keep his injured foot looser.
Whatever the case, it has certainly worked out well with Paige posting 6.2 apg in the past five games and posting a 3.9 A/TO. Both of those numbers are significant jumps from the prior games. In addition, Paige is making a huge impact on the defensive end with 2.8 spg in the last five up 1.0 in the prior 16. Paige's defense rebounding has also improved significantly since entering ACC play. In the first 13 games of the season Paige averaged just 1.7 defensive rebounds per contest. In ACC play he has pulled 3.1 defensive rebounds per game and 3.4 in the past five games. His DRB% in league play is 9.9 and well above the overall season rate of 7.0. The perimeter rebounding is at least part of what has UNC collecting 73% of opponent misses in ACC play after being below 70% prior to that.
Obviously Paige playing more minutes would likely lead to higher averages. However the per 40 numbers show the junior guard is indeed operating at a much higher level in ACC play and in Berry's absence.
Whether the absence of Berry and the increased playing time has made Paige more comfortable or he has simply stepped up his game to account for the personnel issues, Paige has picked a great time to play some of his best basketball.
The question to be answered is if and when Berry returns, does Roy Williams back Paige's minutes off or keep him on the same track? Conventional wisdom says Berry's return would eat into some of Paige's playing time however Williams is already showing an inclination to trim the rotation and in ACC play there is little room to leave Paige off the court too long. On that basis, Berry's return likely eats more into minutes at other positions than Paige.
Last season, Paige had a reputation of being a second half player. That pattern is not nearly as prominent this season in games. Over the course of first 21 games, it is beginning to look like Paige has saved his best basketball for the second half of the season.