Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson — the faces of North Carolina men’s basketball for years — leave a gap where they once stood. Many UNC fans have forgotten what it feels like to watch the Tar Heels take the floor without the two at the helm.
And for the Tar Heel upperclassmen — namely Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks — the presence of the two superstars is all they have ever known.
“Those were the guys that we always looked up to, since our freshmen year,” Britt said. “With those guys being gone, (there) is a void that we’re expected to fill.”
UNC returned every non-graduated player from last year — including three starters — but Paige and Johnson left a gaping hole.
“They were our two best players,” Coach Roy Williams said. “The best defender, the best outside scorer, the best inside scorer, the best rebounder.”
But unlike most teams fresh off an appearance in the Final Four, North Carolina has the pieces to make up for some of the lost talent.
The Tar Heels will miss Johnson’s inside presence, but the one-two punch of Hicks and Meeks is among the best in the nation. Both were starting-caliber players last season, each hovering around nine points per game on better than 54 percent shooting.
UNC will also look to a newcomer, first-year Tony Bradley, for a spark down low. The 6-foot-10 forward has shown flashes of brilliance, similar to those Johnson showed as a youngster.
As for replacing Paige, UNC has already been in this position — almost a year ago exactly. After Paige suffered a broken bone in his hand in November, Britt and then-sophomore Joel Berry played formidably to hold down the guard position. With another year under their belts, the veteran guards are poised to produce despite Paige’s departure.
Paige and Johnson were valuable far beyond the court, however. Replacing them as leaders won’t be easy.
Johnson and Paige set an example in every way that mattered. Paige was the off-the-court support system his teammates needed, while Johnson was the booming voice that guided the ship on the court. Neither can be easily substituted.
And none of UNC’s players are completely prepared to lead like Paige and Johnson did, because they’ve never had to. The team knows no one can force himself into that leadership role.
“I think everybody on the team needs to be themselves,” junior Theo Pinson said. “Nobody’s Brice. Nobody’s Marcus.”
Instead, the Tar Heels will rely on their veterans to lead as a group. And they will build off the example set for them.
“We’ve taken things from what Marcus has told us and what Brice has shown us, and we’re going to try to do it as a team,” Pinson said.
Paige and Johnson will be absent, but not missing.