College Basketball

Big Four College Basketball Wrap: Paige, Tar Heels take us back to the good old days

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Thank God for the Tar Heels. In a year where Duke was looking to bridge the gap between two championship-level teams, Wake Forest was still rebuilding the program, and NC State was searching for purpose, North Carolina needed to be compelling because, let’s face it, college basketball is better when the Big Four is centrally involved. They delivered.

Though it wasn’t a classically great UNC squad, it didn’t need to be. In a down year for college basketball that will become the norm in the one-and-done era when there’s a shallow class of incoming freshman, the Heels served as a reminder of how college basketball used to be, where the best team in the country was made up of players we’ve known for multiple seasons. Those kinds of teams tend to be remembered fondly in this state, and the 2015-16 Tar Heels will be no exception.

While the other three schools were looking to the future, the time was definitely now for UNC, and the entire year had an odd sense of urgency to it. A “last chance” feel almost, thanks to the NCAA issues that still loom over Chapel Hill no matter how used we are to the idea that there will never be an ending. We got a stark reminder that our Hall of Fame coaches are nearing the end of their careers as both Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski experienced health scares, and as mentioned before, the connection to the seniors that led the Tar Heels … especially Marcus Paige.

Paige may go down in history as the most intriguing figure in recent Big Four history. Marcus Paige was the anti-scandal that fans and media alike needed so badly. A good player, a great student, and an even better interview, the media fell in love with Paige in an intense fashion, and it changed the way people viewed, and talked about, the Tar Heel program. In a way, the affection for Paige was similar to what Duke saw with Nolan Smith. Smith’s huge, infectious personality was such a contrast to the cold, distant relationship between fans/media and the Duke basketball program, just like Paige was such a contrast to the new reality of how UNC is viewed by the outside world. It showed in the back-to-back preseason player of the year honors. It showed in the Tiger Woods-like “is Marcus back” conversations that took place after every big basket this season. It wasn’t just a desire for Paige to be good, it was a need. And man, those final few minutes of his career? The payoff was bigger than anyone ever hoped for.

The low point of the season for the Tar Heels was undoubtedly the home loss to Duke, and the final possession of that game makes the final possession of the National Championship all the more special. Against Duke, Paige stood passively on the wing being guarded by Luke Kennard, the Blue Devils’ worst defender on the court. As the Heels worked their action to find Justin Jackson curling off of a screen, Paige loafed across the baseline, never making Kennard work to deny him the ball.


In the championship game, UNC runs almost the identical set with Berry pushing the ball up the court with Paige on the right wing. This time, instead of staying still, Paige works off of a weak screen by Brice Johnson that Villanova jumps on a switch, but he continues to work back for the ball instead of being passive, and the rest is … well, it should have been … history.


While that hanging, double-pump three pointer will forever be remembered, it was the play prior to that one that really stands out as the kind of play that winners make. Down three points with under 30 seconds left, Paige drives for a left-handed runner that rims out, and the ball falls harmlessly to four Villanova players in the middle of the lane. Josh Hart grabs the rebound, but Paige rips it away and flips up an over-the-head layup in traffic to cut the lead to a single point. At the 0:57 mark of the below video, you can see four Tar Heels who have already lost the game, and then there’s Paige refusing to allow it to happen.


Paige was denied his reward when Kris Jenkins’s buzzer-beater won the championship for the Wildcats, but the final two minutes allowed everyone else to see what drew fans and members of the media to him in the first place. Taking the best team into the national championship game and losing, especially in that dramatic fashion, is going to feel like a lost opportunity for a long time. There is no doubt, however, that the 2015-16 season was a resounding success for the Tar Heels that simply lacked the final payoff that the story deserved. UNC single-handedly made Big Four basketball interesting and relevant this year, and certainly gave their fans five months of joy as we inch closer towards closing the chapter on six years of hell.


As for fans of the other three schools, there wasn’t much to celebrate other than the Tar Heels not winning. Duke took an average team and turned in an average result, finishing 5th in the ACC, losing in the quarterfinals of the tournament to a better team, and then losing in the Sweet 16 to another better team. Wake Forest showed signs of life with a fairly impressive start to the season, but were once again beat down by the competitive conference schedule and failed to take a noticeable step forward, results wise. While at least it was clear that Danny Manning’s Deacs were working to build a foundation, NC State really struggled to even demonstrate purpose this season. Each of the three certainly had outside factors like injuries and attrition to deal with, but out of the group, Mark Gottfried’s squad was the only team whose season goals weren’t evident.

At the individual player level, however, all three teams certainly delivered some excitement. NC State’s Cat Barber had a phenomenal offensive year and established himself as one of the most dangerous threats in college basketball. Barber topped 20 points in 22 games this season, and scored 30 or more six times, including a 38 point performance against Wake Forest.

Speaking of the Deacs, freshman guard Bryant Crawford is going to become a problem. Crawford finished the season averaging nearly 14 points per game, and established himself as a go-to player that will absolutely win games during his time in Winston-Salem. In a year that was supposed to be about seniors Cody Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas, Crawford stole the show and will be a significant piece of the resurgence of the Wake Forest program over the next few years.

Duke’s two-headed monster of freshman Brandon Ingram and sophomore Grayson Allen was the league’s best one-two punch (insert flagrant foul joke here). Ingram got off to a slow start, but was the ACC’s top freshman and has a legitimate shot at being the first overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Allen finished 2nd to Cat Barber in the ACC scoring race, taking home first-team All-ACC honors as well as several All-American awards.

Of course, the big story this year in regards to Allen wasn’t his scoring, but instead, his controversial series of two tripping incidents that drew an official reprimand from the league office. Allen’s tendency to cross the line overshadowed one of the best statistical offensive performances in Duke basketball history. “Over the course of the season I made some mistakes, and for me thankfully I was able to learn from those mistakes. I understand the responsibility that college basketball players have,” Allen told Blue Devil Network when announcing that he would return to Duke for his junior season. “For me, it’s very important for me to be a good role model on and off the court and set a good example.” Hopefully that’s the end of that from one of the early player of the year favorites heading into 2016-17.


All Big Four First Team

Cat Barber, NC State

Grayson Allen, Duke

Bryant Crawford, Wake Forest

Brandon Ingram, Duke

Brice Johnson, UNC


All Big Four Second Team

Joel Berry, UNC

Marcus Paige, UNC

Justin Jackson, UNC

Abdul-Malik Abu, NC State

Devin Thomas, Wake Forest


All Freshman Team

Bryant Crawford, Wake Forest

Luke Kennard, Duke

Maverick Rowan, NC State

Brandon Ingram, Duke

John Collins, Wake Forest


Player of the Year

Brice Johnson, UNC


Freshman of the Year

Brandon Ingram, Duke


Coach of the Year

Roy Williams, UNC