“I think everybody looked at Marcus last year to say what we needed,” Theo Pinson said in October. “And this year, I feel like ... we’ve taken things from what Marcus has told us. And what Brice has shown us.”
As this season has gone along, it’s not hard to see how Paige and Johnson have impacted this year’s team. Isaiah Hicks, the forward who replaced Johnson in the starting lineup, said Johnson’s advice has stuck with him.
“Play every game like it’s yours,” Hicks said on Dec. 21. “He told me, because (Johnson) got all the rebounds and stuff because he’s like, ‘This is my rebound. Nobody can guard me.’”
In North Carolina’s 85-42 win over Northern Iowa, Hicks dunked all over an unprepared Panther. In the aggressiveness and the hint of a staredown after, the impact Johnson had on Hicks’ game stood out.
Paige’s impact reached further, off the court and into the classroom.
“Marcus used to check to make sure that we were doing the right things, doing great in the classroom, getting the right grades,” Kennedy Meeks said on Nov. 15.
The 2016-17 Tar Heels have opted for leadership by committee to replace Paige and Johnson. Pinson is the talker on the court. Jackson, Meeks and Joel Berry are stepping into Paige’s shoes, working to become better leaders.
“In games, when they get on the line, Marcus would really step up,” Hicks said. “Really take (those) big shots, stuff like that. Of course, that’s what we miss.”
“But then again, we’ve seen that out of Justin.”
Against Kentucky on Dec. 17, Jackson had a career-high 34 points. UNC lost 103-100, but Jackson filled Paige’s shoes and made some of the big shots Paige would have taken.
Other times it’s been Berry who has stepped up. He had a career-high 31 points against Clemson, helping the Tar Heels to an 89-86 road win — their first of conference play.
Everything UNC has experienced so far this season are all steps in the process of getting back to the Final Four. Everyone knows how that ended. The hearts ached last April just a little bit more because everyone knew Johnson and Paige were denied a shot at a championship.
It’s a fact that hasn’t been lost on this current group.
“(Brice) and Marcus and Joel (James) really deserved to win that,” Meeks said in October. “They’ve been through so much since they’ve been here. And for us to fall short only motivated us this summer to work extremely hard, probably the hardest we’ve ever worked since we’ve been here, on and off the court.
“Me personally, I’m trying to do it for those guys.”