SAN ANTONIO — There are plenty of basketball fans in Iowa who have little time for Marcus Paige since he left Linn-Mar High to play for North Carolina.
He’s not a Hawkeye. So forget about him, say some Iowa supporters. He’s not a Cyclone, so ditto say some Iowa State fans.
But many others were happy Paige went where his heart led him. Although, there are limits. A lot of Paige’s Linn-Mar classmates — he thinks it’s about one-fourth of his graduating class of over 400 — attend Iowa State. They obviously want their team to beat Paige’s Tar Heels in Sunday’s third-round NCAA tournament game here.
“I’ve already talked to a bunch of friends who go to Iowa State,” Paige said. “They said they’ll cheer me but root for Iowa State’s team. I don’t know how that’s going to work.”
“It’s tough,” said Jack Halupnik of Marion, an Iowa State sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering. He has been a close friend of Paige’s since seventh-grade, and is staying with Paige’s family at North Carolina’s team hotel in San Antonio.
“There’s no way I’ll cheer against Iowa State, but my best friend’s playing on the other side. I want Marcus to score 40 or 50 and Iowa State to win by 10.”
Halupnik had the audacity to wear an Iowa State shirt to North Carolina’s open practice Thursday at AT&T Center.
“In the middle of the practice Marcus yelled at me in the crowd,” Halupnik said. “He said ‘You better not be wearing that at the game!’ ”
“He better be cheering for us,” Paige joked, “because he’s here on my ticket.”
Paige has joined the category of Iowa natives who gained basketball glory out-of-state and weren’t held in particularly high regard by some in their home state because of it. It’s sports, and that happens. Ellis Paige, Marcus’ father, said more people understand than not.
“He came out of Linn-Mar with a great group of young people. Though he’s in Carolina, they still treat him as Marcus. He’s got a lot of buddies at Iowa State, and Iowa as well.”
Morgan Paige, Marcus’ sister, sort of blazed a trail for her brother when she went from Marion High to Wisconsin, where she recently finished a basketball career with the Badgers that included 97 games started.
Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Harrison Barnes and Paige are all Iowans who left the state to play for a college superpower. It’s no coincidence they all signed on with Roy Williams, at Kansas or North Carolina.
Paige wanted to play at North Carolina long before Williams began recruiting him during his junior year at Linn-Mar.
“Iowa didn’t have great teams,” Paige said. “(Point guard) Raymond Felton and North Carolina were winning the national-title (in 2005). Then they went to another Final Four, then they won another title (in 2009).
“It was hard not to fall in love with the way Carolina played.”
“Since the day I met him,” Halupnik said, “I’ve known it was his dream of all-time to play basketball at North Carolina. Of course that’s what I wanted for him. I’m really glad it ended up as it did because that’s what he wanted.
“If you had the opportunity to go to Carolina to play basketball, how could you not take it?”
Still, some folks back in the home state wouldn’t strongly agree. They are those who will love a Michigan kid who plays at Iowa, but not vice versa. They are fans, and many fans wear blinders.
“I’ve heard from a lot more Iowa people than Iowa State,” Paige said, “just because I live on that side of the state. I get more heat from Iowa fans.”
But it wasn’t a North Carolina-or-Iowa decision.
“At the end of the day it was Carolina-Kansas,” he said. “My third and fourth were UVA (Virginia) and Iowa. If I was going to stay in the state I’d have probably gone to Iowa. Two of my AAU teammates, Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell, are there.”
Ellis Paige said Saturday that things might have been different had Fran McCaffery been a couple years into his Iowa tenure when his son was at Linn-Mar.
“Fran did an exceptional job of recruiting Marcus, and we’re still very good friends,” Ellis said Saturday. “He texted me last night when Carolina won the game and said he loves watching Marcus play. He’s texted me five or six times after Marcus’ games. That says a lot.
“And Marcus has an absolutely wonderful relationship with Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury.”
When he was Iowa State’s coach, Greg McDermott began recruiting Paige when he was a ninth-grader. Only Northern Iowa had wooed him before that. When McDermott moved on to Creighton, new ISU coach Fred Hoiberg was in touch with Paige almost immediately.
The basketball world would suggest Paige chose well, and that Williams did likewise in signing him. He was named the ACC’s Most Improved Player this season, and was a first-team All-ACC player. He averages 17.5 points and 4.3 assists.
He has been brilliant in many games this year. He carried his team to late-season home wins over North Carolina State and Duke late in the season.
“Last year I wasn’t making a lot of shots and my confidence was up and down,” Paige said.
“I’ve been in a lot of clutch situations this year. In a lot of them, I’ve been able to deliver. My teammates trust me to make some big plays.”
That was said calmly, much like the way he plays the game. Paige was a portrait of grace under pressure in the Tar Heels’ 79-77 NCAA second-round win over Providence here Friday night, sinking a pair of 3-pointers in the game’s last three minutes and handling the ball without a trace of tension when his team was down 77-74, and again when it was knotted at 77.
The national Player of the Year in college ball this year is Creighton’s Doug McDermott, of Ames High. Next year, a junior from Marion could be a contender. Perhaps all Iowan basketball fans wouldn’t revel in that, but a lot of Linn-Mar Lions sure would.