North Carolina coach Roy Williams is quick to reference 2001-02 Kansas when he talks about his point guards this season. The Jayhawks went to the Final Four that year starting a trio of point guards in Aaron Miles, Jeff Boschee and Kirk Hinrich.
“I’ve heard that story like a million times,” junior Marcus Paige said.
Based on the early returns, it should remain just a story Williams likes to tell -- he calls that year the “easiest coaching job he’s had in his life” -- not a lineup the Tar Heels depend on consistently.
Sure, Williams could use Paige, sophomore Nate Britt II and freshman Joel Berry II in the same lineup for ball handling and free throw shooting to close out close games. But barring injury, foul trouble or ineptitude, Carolina is much more talented and deep on the wings for the lineup to play out like it did at Kansas.
That’s good news for Paige, who was named the ACC’s preseason Player of the Year and Associated Press preseason All-America. He will spend more time this season with the ball in his hands at point guard.
“He’s a complete basketball player,” Williams said. “He’s our best shooter, probably the best driver. Best defender. If I had five of him at the same size we’d be really good.”
Paige will still spend time off the ball, but it won’t be out of necessity like it was for stretches last season, when Britt started 16 games. The Heels’ were thin on the wing last season, compounded by Leslie McDonald being ineligible for the first nine games.
Britt, who averaged 20.9 minutes per game last season, shot just 36 percent from the floor last season, including just 3 of 12 from 3-point range. In the offseason, the ambidextrous Britt made the decision to change shooting from left handed to right with the hopes that he could increase those percentages. He’ll still shoot free throws -- where he made 28 of 30 in ACC play -- left handed.
During Carolina’s two exhibition games, Williams has used Britt and Paige, Britt and Berry, and Paige and Berry as the backcourt combination. He hesitates to use all three at once because of the potential defensive disadvantage of having a 6-foot-1 player defending small forwards.
But the Tar Heels are excited about the benefits of using two point guards in the lineup.
“Whoever gets the outlet is just going to run,” Paige said.
With Berry, Williams finally has a freshman who can learn to crawl first. The past two seasons the Heels have had a freshman point guard starting the season opener.
Paige had to start as a freshman due to Kendall Marshall’s early departure to the NBA. Britt had to start last year because of the eligibility questions surrounding McDonald and P.J. Hairston. Berry won’t have to deal with as much pressure to immediately run the team as his predecessors.
Berry is making a push for playing time though. Junior forward J.P. Tokoto said he brings a toughness and physicality to the guard spot that the Heels didn’t have last season.
Sophomore Stilman White also returns for the Heels after a two-year Mormon mission. The last game he played in he started for an injured Marshall in Carolina’s loss to Kansas in the 2012 Elite Eight. That loss, and Marshall’s injury, is the reason why Williams loaded up on point guards.
The way Paige sees it, Williams has one of those good problems at the position.
“We’re going to have to find minutes for Joel and Nate cause they’re too good to keep off the floor,” Paige said. “And obviously, I want to be on the floor too.”