North Carolina's key returnee: Marcus Paige

Expectations are high for North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige. AP Photo/Cal Sport Media

Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: North Carolina. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

A few years ago, I watched this skinny kid from Iowa maneuver around his prep peers with ease during an elite AAU tournament. He didn’t have a college body yet, but he clearly had the tools any college coach would want his point guard to possess.

But Marcus Paige, like any freshman point guard, endured a variety of struggles last season.

Paige was thrust into a nontraditional, four-guard lineup. And the Tar Heels were as inconsistent, at times, as he was.

Like his squad, however, Paige finished strong. His freshman season was a solid one.

He recorded 14 points, four assists and three steals during North Carolina’s second-round victory over Villanova in the NCAA tournament.

He averaged 8.2 PPG, 4.2 APG and 1.4 SPG. He shot 34 percent from the 3-point line and 84 percent from the charity stripe.

Paige has the potential to continue the legacy of star point guards in North Carolina. Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall and others were vital orchestrators for their respective squads.

And Paige is in that position now. He’s the most important returnee on a roster that’s filled with elite athletes.

Projections for North Carolina were uncertain immediately following the 2012-13 season.

James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock all considered turning pro. Hairston and McAdoo remained, while Bullock decided to take his talents to the NBA.

In that moment, the Tar Heels went from a team that might enter next season as a mid-tier ACC squad that would have been forced to rely on incoming freshmen Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Nate Britt to a squad that will enter 2013-14 as a national title contender.

Plus, there’s still the Andrew Wiggins mystery.

The Canadian stud will decide soon. And the Tar Heels are still on his list.

If Wiggins goes to Chapel Hill, then everything will be elevated for the program.

But coach Roy Williams has a solid group without him.

He has a team that features the manpower to do big things next season.

Duke will be stacked and Florida State will be a factor if Wiggins signs with the Seminoles. Plus, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse are coming. The ACC will replace the Big Ten as college basketball’s powerhouse in the near future.

Duke and North Carolina tend to battle each year for the ACC crown. But that pattern will be challenged soon, especially with Louisville arriving in a year.

Yet, the Tar Heels remain relevant.

They’re bigger now with Hicks and Meeks. The young duo is vital. Now, McAdoo can utilize the inside-outside game that wowed NBA scouts when he was a freshman.

He was forced into the paint last season.

Hairston could have a breakout season, now that he’ll probably play a bigger role with Bullock gone.

But even if Wiggins enters the mix, the Tar Heels will need a maestro who can unify and guide the program to its potential.

A healthy Marshall, in my opinion, would have led the Tar Heels to the national championship game in 2012. They just weren’t the same team without him, despite the NBA talent that year’s roster boasted.

The Tar Heels have valuable components again, the kind they’ll need to compete in the super-sized ACC.

But Paige is the guy who must make it all work.

Flashes of potential were expected and accepted when he was just a freshman. Consistency, however, will be a necessity on both ends of the floor in 2013-14.

They need his leadership, too.

The ceiling is high for North Carolina if Paige starts next season the way he finished 2012-13.

Britt will give the Tar Heels some depth at point guard. But this is Paige’s show.

So he has to reduce his turnovers (2.5 TPG). He has to be in charge on the floor and off it. He has to be a threat on offense and defense.

That’s a lot of pressure for any sophomore.

But that’s just Paige’s reality.

North Carolina, per the norm, will be a preseason ACC contender again. To compete for the national title and climb the standings of the new and improved conference, however, the Tar Heels will need their young point guard to grow.

That’s why he’s so significant.