Villanova’s national championship win will long be remembered for the finish. It’s also true that one reason it will long be remembered is that the Wildcats were not exactly loaded with can’t-miss NBA prospects – indeed, when the book is written on that team in a couple of years in that context, they may go down as the first team in about 30 years to win without a future first round draft pick on the roster. What is less remembered, though, is that they beat a team led by seniors, one of whom was nearly a hero but instead is mainly a footnote in that game.
There are reasons why it’s forgotten that North Carolina was led by seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. Mainly, it’s the fact that the Tar Heels came up on the short end. Partly, it’s that Paige missed time with an injury during the season. Perhaps a bigger contributor than that is the fact that a pair of Tar Heels declared for the NBA Draft as early entrants after the season, but both returned to school.
Paige and Johnson seemingly went in opposite directions in their college careers. Paige was thrust into a bigger role than first expected as a freshman thanks to Kendall Marshall going pro a year earlier, but by the time he was a junior many saw him as a strong All-America candidate. But he wasn’t always 100 percent as a junior and struggled shooting at times, and as a senior missed six games early on with a broken wrist. Johnson, meanwhile, was the “potential” player who broke out as a junior, thought about going to the NBA early, then returned and had an All-America senior season.
Johnson carried the Tar Heels for long stretches, and there were games the Tar Heels lost where they simply didn’t get him the ball enough. He may have worked his way into the first round based on the season he had, but as workouts and the combine start to take precedence in the minds of scouts and team executives, you get the feeling he’ll likely end up in the second round, especially since he really needs to get stronger to guard post players in the NBA that are more mature physically.
In the national championship game, Paige hit an acrobatic three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game. It looked like he had his Mario Chalmers moment that would live on forever, recalling when the Kansas guard tied the 2008 national championship game to send it to overtime, a game Kansas ended up winning.
Then Kris Jenkins changed all of that, as we know.
Jenkins didn’t change the stellar career that Johnson and Paige had, or that Paige is simply one of the best young men you could meet in college basketball. Even as he was getting a lot of acclaim, he was always a thoughtful, grounded young man, and one who really embraced the college experience. His senior night speech was memorable and spoke to the kind of young man he is. He was the first player in program history – remember, this is a program with a few dozen jerseys in the rafters of its home arena – to be named a permanent team captain in three seasons.
While Johnson might even get into the first round, Paige is almost certain not to be. Despite having a lot going for him, North Carolina’s 11th-all-time leading scorer is thought to be a possible undrafted player. While he can score, both getting to the rim and with a nice mid-range game, he needs to gain strength and some think he’s more of a shooting guard than a point guard despite having a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio in four years and cutting down on his turnovers every single year.
Paige will seek to get those questions answered in the final two weeks before the NBA Draft. Most likely, he will have to fight his way on to a roster via a summer league and/or playing in the NBDL or overseas. His intangibles are off the charts, which reduces the areas of concern for a team that might give him a chance.
The way his college career ended – going from potential hero to footnote in seconds – might change the narrative of Paige’s college story with a less happy ending than it might have had. It might not have changed the end result in terms of whether or not he and Johnson left with a championship ring, since overtime would have no guarantee. It won’t change the NBA possibilities in front of either player as they attempt to become the latest Tar Heels to reach the NBA. More so than many who have come before them, they have some work to do to get there, as neither is a can’t-miss prospect.
And by that point, the heartbreaking end to their college careers can be long forgotten, their careers remembered for the many good times.