Paige: UNC could be ‘legitimate Final Four contender’

Five years and change separate Roy Williams from his last Final Four appearance. Over that time, a lot has changed.

Since April of 2009, North Carolina basketball has gained a commitment from a top national recruit, fallen short in an NIT title game, seen three players transfer, had a broken wrist end NCAA titles hopes, experienced the emergence of P.J. Hairston, experienced the downfall of P.J. Hairston, beaten a top-ranked team on the road and suffered elimination from the NCAA tournament after losing an eight-point lead with under four minutes to go. With the talent and experience of this year’s roster, though, the Tar Heels should enter this season with a realistic chance to end the drought and potentially hang another banner.

“I think we can be as good as any team,” Marcus Paige said. “We’ll definitely have our fair share of tests with our schedule, but I think that’ll help us out.

“I think we are a legitimate Final Four contender if we can put all the pieces together.”

Paige, who averaged 17.5 points and 4.2 assists as a sophomore on his way to first-team All-ACC honors, will be the clear leader of Williams’ squad. Juniors Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto will be in key roles as well.

While questions remain in some areas, such as whom Williams will insert as the 2-guard and whether or not the team will have more than one perimeter threat, Paige says he’s more comfortable as a leader this year.

“Now that our class is upperclassmen, we’re starting to have other guys step up and try to lead as well,” Paige said. “This is a pretty motivated group, and it doesn’t take a lot of pushing to get guys in the gym and stuff like that.”

With more players stepping up, the Tar Heels are expected to be on most preseason top-10 lists. That will be forgotten in nine months, though. At that point, it’s all about the Final Four, and Paige believes his team just might land there.