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The Morning Dish – Monday, December 7, 2015

December 7, 2015 The Morning Dish No Comments

It was quite a week for North Carolina. The Tar Heels really appear to be locked in right now, and after two big wins, why not? First, the Tar Heels took out Maryland in impressive fashion on Tuesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, taking control early on and holding them off later. Then on Sunday, they handed Davidson their first loss of the season with a 98-65 thumping of the Wildcats.

So much of it has to do with someone who has only played in the past two games, one whose prior level of play has been easy to forget. North Carolina is undoubtedly ecstatic to have Marcus Paige back.

Two years ago, Paige was terrific in carrying the Tar Heels for a lot of the season. In recent years, the Tar Heels haven’t quite had the same caliber of talent that they had earlier in Roy Williams’ tenure, at times where no one could beat him to get an elite recruit. Two years ago, they had eligibility issues with a couple of players, including star P.J. Hairston, and the Tar Heels were the toughest team in America to figure out with their play. Paige, then a sophomore, emerged as an elite player, then was hampered by injuries last season and missed the first six games of this season with a broken bone in his right (non-shooting) hand. Included was a trip back to his home state, where Northern Iowa handed the Tar Heels their only loss of the season thus far.

It’s been easy to forget just how good Paige, who is also a very bright and thoughtful young man, was two years ago as a result. Since returning, however, he has reminded those who are paying attention. He had 20 points and five assists against the Terrapins, then on Sunday he had 13 points and four assists as one of five Tar Heels in double figures.

With Paige back, the game should come easier for guards like Nate Britt, who scored 17 points on Sunday, and Joel Berry II. Together, they will make life easier for the frontcourt of sophomore Justin Jackson, who’s always had a world of upside and is starting to emerge, and the inside tandem of Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, two players with very different bodies but combine for great results.

North Carolina shot nearly 51 percent from the field on Sunday and held a very good offensive team to 34.3 percent. They out-rebounded the Wildcats 52-31. Mind you, this is a veteran Davidson team, one well-coached by one of the best in the business in Bob McKillop.

The non-conference challenges aren’t over yet for the Tar Heels. They still have to go to Texas on Saturday and host UCLA a week later. But this is a team with experience, talent and now a leader back on the floor. They look very much locked in right now.

Side Dishes

The best matchup of the day lived up to its billing in Waco, as Baylor and Vanderbilt staged a great duel. Behind 30 points from Taurean Prince and a decisive 17-0 run to take the lead for good in the second half, Baylor edged Vanderbilt 69-67.

VCU got a career game from Melvin Johnson, but it wasn’t enough as Florida State built an 11-point halftime lead and then held on to beat the Rams 76-71 in Tallahassee. Johnson had 36 points on 14-24 shooting, including 8-14 from long range.

Chris Mullin may endure a long first season as head coach at St. John’s given the Red Storm’s depleted roster. But he is 1-0 as head coach at Madison Square Garden after the Red Storm beat St. Francis Brooklyn 63-56 on Sunday in part of the MSG Holiday Festival. In the other game, Hofstra beat Appalachian State 86-80.

A team to watch on the negative has been San Diego State, who fell to 5-4 after losing to cross-town rival San Diego 53-48 at Petco Park. Simply put, Steve Fisher’s team isn’t having a good go of it thus far and has now lost to UALR at home and this one. Another part of the story of this game is the many management issues that were documented in this story at CBSSports.com.

Purdue has started the season on a roll, and the last three games, they have done so without leader Rapheal Davis. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year has been out due to a sprained MCL suffered in practice on November 25, but ESPN reported on Sunday that he is on the verge of returning this week. Davis is also averaging 11.6 points per game, but his value goes well beyond numbers. The Boilermakers play on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday this week.

Tonight’s Menu

It’s a light slate as we move closer to where many teams will be off for final exams.

  • The highlight is in the Pearl Harbor Classic, where Oklahoma meets Villanova in the best game of the day, with Oregon taking on Navy in the nightcap.
  • Western Illinois travels to Iowa seeking another win over a Big Ten team, having already knocked off Wisconsin back on opening night.
  • The 138th Battle of the Boulevard is on tap as Belmont heads down the road to take on Lipscomb.

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