Marshall set to lead UNC against Duke

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Kendall Marshall has made himself fifth-ranked North Carolina’s most irreplaceable player.

The sophomore point guard is second

nationally in assists, averaging 9.8 per game. He’s been the perfect

floor leader for coach Roy Williams’ fast-paced attack with his

see-everything court vision and precise passing that make the

fifth-ranked Tar Heels hum in transition.

He’ll need to be on his game for the Tar Heels heading into Wednesday’s rivalry game with No. 10 Duke.

It was about this time a year ago that

Marshall took over as starter for Larry Drew II, who quit the team days

later. The Tar Heels (20-3, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) have gone

37-6 with him since, though they have little depth behind him after

losing junior Dexter Strickland to a season-ending knee injury last

month.

“They said that last year with losing

Larry: is it more pressure?” Marshall said with a laugh. “Now we lose

Dexter: is it more pressure? If they start putting too much pressure, I

don’t know if I’m going to be alive.”

The Tar Heels have plenty of potential

NBA talent in Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller. But it’s

difficult to imagine how the Tar Heels would look if Marshall was hurt

or on the bench with foul trouble.

He can dominate play despite taking

only a handful of shots, from the way he protects the ball against

pressure to his deft touch on pitch-aheads to teammates who have beaten

defenders down the court.

Marshall, averaging 6.5 points, is

playing about 34 minutes in ACC games. Williams uses the only true

backup — 6-foot freshman Stilman White — for brief stretches just

before media timeouts to give Marshall as long of a break as possible

without keeping him sidelined more than a few plays.

In last weekend’s win at Maryland,

Marshall played the final 7 minutes with four fouls and went on to tie

his career high with 16 assists in the 83-74 win. It marked the fifth

time he has tallied at least 15 assists in a game. No other UNC player

has managed more than one in program history.

Bill Guthridge coached some of the

program’s best point guards — Phil Ford and Kenny Smith, to name two

— as the longtime assistant to Dean Smith and Smith’s successor for

three seasons as head coach. He sees similarities between Marshall and

Ed Cota, the pass-first point guard who set a school record with 1,030

assists and finished his career in 2000 ranked third in NCAA history

behind Duke’s Bobby Hurley (1,076) and North Carolina State’s Chris

Corchiani (1,038), according to STATS LLC.

“It was really fun to coach Ed Cota and

it was amazing how he could get the ball to the right person at the

right time,” Guthridge said. “I think Kendall is the same way — and

Kendall might even see up the floor better.

“He sees the court so well, all 94 feet

of it. He amazes me with some of the passes that he makes. He doesn’t

make very many bad passes.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sees the same thing.

“When Bobby played here, for all you

who can remember, he got a lot of assists in transition,” Krzyzewski

said. “And I think that’s where Kendall is different than any other

point guard in the country. He can really pass ahead. And not just a

pass ahead for somebody to make a move. He’s made the move for the guy

with the pass. With the runners that they have, you can get a lot of

assists.”

Marshall’s 9.8-assist season average is

three more than second-place Lorenzo Brown of N.C. State, and it’s on

pace to shatter Cota’s single-season record of 8.1 per game in 2000.

Despite spending the first half of his freshman season splitting minutes

with Drew, Marshall is already 11th in program history with 456 assists

and has as many double-digit assist games as Ford (16).

He also ranks second nationally in assist-turnover ratio at 3.42.

“I think the coaching staff and my

teammates have put me in the position to be very successful,” Marshall

said. “My teammates do a great job of finishing plays. There are plays

where I may hit John seven feet from the basket, and with his length, he

can turn that into a layup. There are places I give Harrison the ball

and he’s able to hit tough shots, so I in no way take full credit for

that.”

Maybe not, but there’s no denying the

change since Marshall took over. A team coming off an ugly 20-point loss

to lowly Georgia Tech went on to chase down the Blue Devils (19-4, 6-2)

and win the ACC regular-season title before falling a game short of the

Final Four.

Barnes said the biggest difference in Marshall is been-there, done-that confidence.

“He doesn’t have to worry about `Oh, am

I going to go out here and make the right play?’ He’s done that a

million times,” Barnes said. “He’s been on that stage for clutch games,

being in the NCAA tournament, going to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. I

think he’s much more poised. He goes out there and he knows exactly

where to get to his spots and how to make those plays.”