About 40 minutes before practices these days, Marcus Paige will meet with North Carolina’s strength coach for foot massages, muscle-loosening exercises and calf stretches. Then, if his right foot feels good, he’ll meet with a trainer and have it taped.
Doug Halverson, the trainer, “tapes it a certain way to take some pressure off of it,” Paige said Tuesday before the Tar Heels left for Jacksonville, Fla., and the NCAA tournament.
“And then I just play,” he said.
The pre-practice routine has become familiar for Paige, whose quickness and agility suffered most of the season while he endured plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition for which the only cure is time and a consistent treatment regimen.
When his foot most bothered him, Paige’s performance suffered. He labored through some games, each step or jump shot an exercise in pain management. He struggled to penetrate and drive into the lane, which had been a crucial element of his game.
Now, though, Paige is as healthy as he has been all season. During UNC’s four games in the ACC tournament last week he appeared, in some ways, to be a different player – quicker, more confident, more productive – than he had been for much of the regular season.
“I think I’m just moving better overall,” he said. “I’m a little bit quicker. I jump a little bit higher. And those things don’t really make that big of a difference because I’m not really a guy that relies on athleticism.
“But when you play without worrying about anything and you don’t have any pain, you just play and everything is natural and instinctual.”
Paige’s recent surge in production reflects his improved health. He was averaging about 13 points entering the ACC tournament. During UNC’s past five games – including a defeat against Duke in the final game of the regular season – he has averaged a little more than 18 points.
Asked to name some things Paige can do now that he couldn’t just a few weeks ago, coach Roy Williams could have identified any number: Paige’s improved penetration, increased lift on his jump shot. Without skipping a beat, though, Williams pointed to practice.
“I think practice is one thing he can do that he couldn’t do then,” Williams said.
Indeed, during the middle and toward the end of the regular season, Williams often held Paige out of practices. Paige was always present, but he rarely participated in team drills while he rested his foot.
The hope was that rest would do the injury some good. Paige was aware that sitting out and missing games might help his injury heal more quickly, but he said he never seriously considered not playing for a while.
“I felt like since I was able to play, even if I wasn’t 100 percent, I was helping the team in some capacity,” Paige said. “I think it would like drive me crazy if I had to sit out, even if it was better for me in the long run. I knew that if I was able to go at least a decent percentage that I would play.”
The injury became less painful late in the regular season. After the final few games before the ACC tournament – at Georgia Tech, against Duke – Paige said his foot felt better than it had in a long time during competition.
It continued to improve in Greensboro at the ACC tournament, where he played like he often did a season ago. The most noticeable difference?
He’s “way more aggressive,” junior forward J.P. Tokoto said. “And I mean, he’s always been confident in everything he does. But you can definitely tell … he’s hunting to be more aggressive, and we need that to be a good team – a great team.”
The Tar Heels were at times a great team – or at least closer to the team Williams envisioned – during the ACC tournament. UNC put together complete games in victories against Boston College, Louisville and Virginia.
Justin Jackson, a freshman wing forward, scored a season-high 22 points in the victory against Virginia, and Brice Johnson, often the target of Williams’ ire, more consistently provided the kind of urgency Williams has been trying to coax out of him.
Then there’s Paige. UNC enters the NCAA tournament with a renewed sense of optimism in large part because Paige is playing a lot like he did a season ago.
“When you’re feeling better, you don’t have those distractions, you can play better and have the feeling that you can (do) more,” Williams said. “When you jump off your foot and you don’t feel pain, you’re thinking about the rest of the technique when you’re shooting the jump shot.”
That’s the difference now for Paige. There’s less discomfort. He’s able to go through his familiar treatment plan and just play.