ACC Basketball: Marshall picks up Heels
By Aaron Beard
CHAPEL HILL — Kendall Marshall always seems to know exactly where his North Carolina teammates are, how they want the pass delivered and when to push the ball in transition.
It’s the steady play expected from an upperclassman — but Marshall is a freshman.
After inheriting the starting point guard job during a bumpy midseason stretch, Marshall has looked in complete control as the sixth-ranked Tar Heels carry a confident edge into the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
“At the end of the day, it’s still basketball,” Marshall said Tuesday. “There are five players on each team competing, and I just like to go out there and have fun.”
The Tar Heels (24-6) are 12-1 since Marshall moved into the starting lineup and avenged their only loss by beating reigning national champion Duke to win the regular-season title. Marshall was a third-team all-ACC pick after leading the league with 5.6 assists per game.
But Marshall deflects credit for the Tar Heels’ rise, even after his masterful 15-point, 11-assist performance against the Blue Devils that gave UNC the top seed in this week’s tournament in Greensboro.
Ask him when things started to click, he’ll point to the aftermath of a 20-point loss at Georgia Tech in January. Point out that he took over the starting job after that game, he’ll call it “a coincidence.”
“Maybe it did make our team better, me moving into the starting lineup,” Marshall said. “But at the same time, we went out there and everybody bought into the fact that they wanted to win badly.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he considered replacing Larry Drew II — who quit the team four games after losing his starting job — with Marshall earlier only to back off when Marshall had a brief dip. But when Marshall regrouped, Williams made the move.
“Our team needed something,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to just sit there and say, ‘OK, well, it’s going to get better.’ Well, it’s not going to get better sometimes. I’d rather be proactive and try to do something.
“He accepted that challenge and really took it upon himself to really expect more out of himself, to try to do more and try to be more perfect. … He’s done an amazing job. It’s one of the best step forwards I’ve seen a freshman take.”
Joe Wootten, his coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va., said Marshall’s recent play is reminiscent of how Marshall elevated his game to close his senior year there.
“The game seemed to slow down for him and he just found that perfect fit of when to pass and when to shoot it,” Wootten said. “I watched the (Duke) game the other night and you could see that same level of confidence in him.
“For all that he’s been praised now, at times when he was in high school, people would question how well did he score or how quick he was. Ultimately Roy Williams didn’t recruit him for all those things. They recruited him for what he’s doing right now.”
Marshall isn’t blessed with blazing speed or impressive athleticism, but he has good size at 6-foot-3 and has a crafty first step while playing with a pass-first mentality. He has terrific touch on the ball, too, particularly on pitch aheads that are a perfect fit in Williams’ fast-paced offense.
It took time for his teammates to learn to be ready for his passes. Marshall chuckles when recalling a pick-and-roll pass he threw right by Tyler Zeller’s face in an offseason pickup game, but he’s rarely missing now.
In his first game after Drew’s departure, Marshall had 16 assists and three turnovers against one of the league’s better defenses in a rout of Florida State. He showed a little of everything against Duke, from a perfect downcourt heave to Leslie McDonald for a first-half layup following a made basket to a bullet from behind the arc and through the Duke defense to Zeller for a layup.
“Any time he’s driving, you never know when he’s going to throw a little wraparound pass,” Zeller said. “But the nice part about his passes, when he does throw a very close pass, it’ll just drop right there. It’s not hard, it’s easy to catch and usually you’re wide open so you just lay it up.”
If Marshall keeps rolling, the Tar Heels believe it will be another good March.
“It was fun playing the underdog for the last two months, sneaking up on people and showing where we want to be and fighting our way to the top,” Marshall said. “But now that we’re up there, this will show more character we have. Are we able to go out there and compete every single time when all eyes are on us?”