RALEIGH, N.C. — If Kendall Marshall consistently comes close to the offensive force he was Tuesday night, North Carolina may be the favorite to win the national championship.
The UNC sophomore point guard, who is setting a pace for assists unlike nearly anyone who has ever played in the ACC, added scoring to his repertoire in the Tar Heels’ 86-74 victory over the Wolfpack in a wild atmosphere at the RBC Center.
N.C. State did a nice job of executing its game plan by limiting the number of touches for UNC big man Tyler Zeller, who had 21 points and 17 rebounds in the first meeting with the Pack. N.C. State also kept UNC off the offensive glass, which is essentially part of its offense.
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But by doubling down defensively on UNC’s bigs and going to a zone in which the emphasis was placed elsewhere, the Wolfpack afforded Marshall open looks on the perimeter. He took advantage by finishing with a season-high 22 points, including hitting four of five 3-point attempts, doubling his previous career-high for made threes in a game.
And in typical Marshall form, he also handed out 13 assists with no turnovers.
“He played a very good game, you have to give him credit for that,” the Wolfpack’s C.J. Williams said. “We executed our game plan the way we wanted to at times, but what can we say?”
Marshall wasn’t perfect. He did commit a foul and allowed Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown an 18-point night. The thing is, Brown did his damage while converting just six of 21 field-goal attempts.
UNC sophomore and leading scorer Harrison Barnes was ecstatic to see this performance from his classmate. He and the other Heels have long said they think Marshall can score, but they also recognize it’s on a need-to-do-so basis.
Barnes said that was the case on this night, and that Marshall embraced the dare put forth by their red-clad rivals.
“They played him like (Boston Celtics guard Rajon) Rondo, and he scored like (Chicago Bulls guard Derrick) D. Rose,” Barnes said. “That’s the mindset teams have, and he can do damage.”
Maybe not exactly like Derrick Rose, but Marshall did the best impersonation of his previous best game, and then some.
He’s not super-athletic, doesn’t really leave his feet at all on jump shots, and he’s never going to be mistaken for Ty Lawson moving up the court. But he has better court vision than any UNC point guard ever, with the possible exception of Ed Cota, and he’s so darn cagey that he adeptly gets off awkward-looking shots around the rim.
Plus, Marshall is effective. Really effective. And against the Wolfpack he was sensational. If he can score at half the rate he did Tuesday for the rest of the season, UNC will be the most difficult team in the nation to defend.
Consider: The Tar Heels have in Zeller an NBA first-round pick in the post who might be the leader for ACC Player of the Year; a wing and guaranteed lottery pick in Barnes, who is taking his game to a higher level each week; a secondary scorer and shot-blocker extraordinaire in John Henson, also a likely lottery pick; and a 6-foot-7 off-guard in Reggie Bullock who can defend, rebound and has a nice perimeter stroke.
Then add Marshall, the second-fastest player to 500 assists in ACC history (he probably would have been the fastest had he started from day one a year ago). If he’s also a solid scorer?
That would make UNC the team to beat.
Now all Marshall has to do is become more of a scoring threat — he has just four double-digit scoring games this season.
“My teammates being the offensive talents that they are, they’re going to command a lot of attention,” Marshall said. “And they (State) did a great job of double-teaming them, and that’s going to be most teams’ game plans, to keep the ball away from them. I’m just happy I was able to help my team and knock down some shots.”
With Marshall making shots, it could be the Tar Heels’ final piece to the puzzle.