NCAA Tournament: Marshall the key to UNC success
NEWARK, N.J. — Sitting on the dais with his five starters, a little more than 24 hours before North Carolina was to play Kentucky for a trip to the Final Four, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was loose.
He joked about the NCAA having $10 billion contract but only two microphones to pass around the interview room at the East Regional in the Prudential Center.
And when a faulty fire alarm sounded halfway through the news conference, Williams chirped: “The good news is we can make it out of here faster than some teams.”
The reason the Tar Heels (29-7) can go so fast is freshman point guard Kendall Marshall. The Dumfries, Va., resident took over the starting job from Larry Drew II after a 20-point loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 16 and North Carolina has gone to taken off since.
The Tar Heels have won 17 of 19 games and reached the NCAA regional finals for the 25th time in school history.
With Marshall running the offense, North Carolina moves up the floor as quickly as any team in the country. Not only do the Heels get out and run, Marshall has shown an uncanny ability to deliver passes where players can turn them into points.
“He is such a bright young man and he understands how to play the game of basketball,” Williams said. “It’s been an easier transformation maybe than any point guard I coached.”
“…The best thing I have with Kendall is that most of the time, I just have to say something to him once and he understand what we’re talking about,” Williams added.
Sophomore forward John Henson said the switch was a major turning point for North Carolina, which was stunned a couple of weeks after the change when Drew left the program.
“Kendall came in and coach kind of gave him the reins and we handled it as well as anyone could have,” Henson said. “We have been sharper since, and playing well and I’m just thankful he got the opportunity.”
Marshall plays the game a little more vertically than Drew.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams said earlier this week that North Carolina does more in the first 10 seconds of a possession than most teams.
Marshall led the team with 222 assists, including a 9.2 average in his last nine games. He also set a school-record NCAA tournament record with 14 assists against Washington last weekend, breaking the mark of 12 that Kenny Smith set in 1987 against Notre Dame.
“My strength is passing the ball and I have a lot of players on this team that are very good at finishing and making shots,” Marshall said. “I just try to get them the ball as much as possible in positions where they can be successful.”
With Henson and 7-footer Tyler Zeller, Marshall tries to get them the ball as close to the basket as possible.
Fellow guard Leslie McDonald likes to catch and shoot, so Marshall gives him the ball where he doesn’t have to dribble.
Highly touted freshman forward Harrison Barnes wants it roughly 20 feet from the basket.
“As a perimeter player, Kendall does a great job of getting me the ball close to the 3-point line opposed to earlier in the season,” Barnes said, noting he was getting the ball about 10 feet from where he wanted it.
The change is something Kentucky is bound to notice. When the Wildcats dropped a 75-73 decision in Chapel Hill in December, Marshall only played 10 minutes.
Kentucky coach John Calipari says the Tar Heels offense moves a lot faster.
“He’ll snake his way to the rim if you space out,” Calipari said.
Marshall downplays getting the starting job, saying the loss to Georgia Tech convinced everyone to pick up their games.
However, there is no doubt that Williams’ decision to let Marshall lead the Tar Heels has made them a better team.
“I think me and coach’s relationship has definitely went to the next level,” said Marshall, who is averaging 6.2 points. “He put a lot of trust in me that I can lead this team and hopefully take us to the next level.”