Duke saw plenty of North Carolina's Marcus Paige in two games as a freshman last season. He rarely left the court, in fact, logging a combined 62 minutes. But the Blue Devils don’t expect to see that player when they travel to Chapel Hill on Wednesday and it has little to do with maturity.
Duke guard Quinn Cook, who will likely spend some time defending Paige, said preparing for Paige entailed a lot more this season. Last season, his primary focus was to distribute to Carolina’s scorers. This season, Paige is out to do his own scoring.
“He’s a different animal this year, he’s way more aggressive,” Cook said. “I think he has that confidence where he’s played in big games -- Louisville, Michigan State, Kentucky -- and he’s performed well. He was more of a facilitator last year with P.J. (Hairston), Reggie (Bullock) and (James Michael) McAdoo still there.”
Paige scored eight points combined in two games against Duke last season. He shot a combined 3-of-15 from the floor and didn’t make either of his two 3-point attempts. He did have seven total assists, but they were accompanied by six total turnovers.
Paige only averaged 8.2 points last season, but eight points is his season-low as a sophomore. He’s more than doubled his scoring average this year thanks to an early season lineup that was missing Hairston and Leslie McDonald and forced Paige into the scorer’s role. Even after McDonald returned, the Tar Heels figured out they can’t win without Paige being aggressive offensively.
Paige leads the team and is fourth in the ACC with 4.6 assists per game. This season he also happens to lead the team in scoring with 17.0 per game, which ranks fifth in the conference.
“This year he’s looked on more to score and he’s doing a great job of that,” Cook said. “He has the confidence. He’s taken his game to a whole new level. It’s going to be a challenge for us to make him work for everything he gets on Wednesday.”
During Carolina’s five-game winning streak, Paige has averaged 18.0 points and 6.0 assists per game.
The Blue Devils, more than any other opponent the Heels have faced this season, have the depth at guard to throw a number of defenders at Paige. Along with Cook, Tyler Thornton, Matt Jones and Andre Dawkins could all end up guarding him during the course of the game.
Fatigue could become a factor as much as the Heels rely on Paige. He hasn’t played less than 30 minutes in a game all season and in ACC games he’s played more than 35 minutes in seven out of 10 games.
Thornton said the Blue Devils' backcourt depth has given them an advantage all season, “not only on the offensive end, but the defensive end, we’re able to keep the pressure up especially throughout the second half when most teams they get tired because they have one or two primary ball-handlers.”