Frosh lead Heels' return to prominence
Harrison Barnes was scoring virtually at will, Reggie Bullock was raining 3s from beyond the arc and Kendall Marshall was running the team with intelligence and precision.
This is what was expected in Chapel Hill all along from this freshman class.
"Finally," Barnes said with a smile that went from ear to ear after the 23rd-ranked Tar Heels’ 106-74 blowout at Boston College on Tuesday night.
The belief when the season began was that last year’s NIT appearance was a fluke, a one-time setback that would be rectified by the presence of Barnes, Bullock and Marshall.
But as the Tar Heels lost four nonconference games, Barnes hardly resembled the top-rated freshman in the land, Bullock couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, and Marshall couldn’t even beat out Larry Drew II.
The Tar Heels were no different from a season ago — headed down the identical path of dancing in that other tournament.
This team was dead, and all you had to do was watch the Tar Heels a little more than two weeks ago in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
North Carolina was run out of Alexander Memorial Coliseum by 20 points at the hands of a Yellow Jackets team that will be fortunate to get a bid to the CollegeInsider.com tourney.
However, that finally trigged the move, the one virtually all of Chapel Hill had been clamoring for since the debacle down in San Juan when the Tar Heels lost back-to-back games to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in November.
Marshall replaced Drew in the starting lineup.
"Kendall helps us," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, shortly after defending Drew and his performance on Tuesday night. "If I didn't think that was true, I wouldn't have made the change."
No one in the Tar Heels' locker room will come out and actually say it, but it's not difficult to read between the lines: They all prefer to play with Marshall.
And who wouldn't?
The long yet not overly athletic freshman is a true floor leader. His numbers aren’t very impressive, but he knows how to play, finds his teammates in spots where they can make plays and has changed the entire complexion of this team.
"They are two different types of players," Tar Heels junior big man Tyler Zeller said. "Kendall can really pass and creates a lot of opportunities for shooters and post players. He finds guys. Larry is a defensive-minded player."
I'll decipher Zeller's comments for those not paying attention at home.
Give Marshall more playing time, coach. Please.
These numbers don't lie: Prior to the change, the Tar Heels (16-5, 6-1 ACC) were shooting 41 percent from the field. In the past four, since Marshall has become a starter, North Carolina is making 49 percent of its shots.
And there has been no larger beneficiary than Barnes.
"He always passes first," Barnes said of Marshall. "If you’re standing on the three-point line and you're open, he's going to find you."
Barnes was four of seven from beyond the arc, nine of 15 overall and finished with a career-high 26 points Tuesday. In the past three games, he's averaging 21.3 points and rescued the Tar Heels with a game-winning shot at Miami last week.
Bullock, known as a dead-eye shooter coming out of high school, has struggled with his shot and a nagging knee injury. However, he made his first four 3-pointers against BC, finished with 16 points in 17 minutes and is nine of 22 from beyond the arc in the Marshall Era.
Then there’s Marshall. He may not be ideal for Williams’ up-tempo system, but he looked like he had the controller of a video game as he picked apart Boston College’s porous defense to the tune of seven points and six assists with only two turnovers.
"They're as good as anyone I've played this year or last year," BC coach Steve Donahue said. "They're very difficult to play because they play so fast and have so many guys that can hurt you."
Donahue just got done going against Duke five days earlier and also faced Kansas and Kentucky — arguably the two most talented teams in the country — a year ago.
In Donahue's defense, this was clearly North Carolina's most impressive effort of the season. Once again, Drew was effective coming off the bench, this time with nine assists and just one turnover.
This showcased what North Carolina is capable of with the freshmen all in sync and the frontcourt duo of John Henson and Zeller — who combined for 31 points and 13 rebounds — doing their share.
It was the most one-sided ACC road victory for the Tar Heels since 2005 and also marked the first time UNC had scored more than 90 points in a league game since February 2009.
And it was spearheaded by the trio of Barnes, Bullock and Marshall.
"We've been waiting since the beginning of the season," Zeller said with a smile.
"We knew it would take time," Marshall added.
Maybe the time has come for North Carolina to return to national relevance — and it's no surprise that the jump back into the Top 25 has also coincided with the emergence of the freshmen.
"This game tonight was big for us," Marshall said. "I was interested to see how we'd respond to a little success with going back in the rankings."
Barnes responded by looking every bit the part of the Preseason All-American everyone anticipated. Bullock did his part by giving the team a much-needed perimeter threat.
He just made it all look easy.