But after the former All-Met from O’Connel broke his wrist in the Tar Heels’ round-of-32 win against Creighton, his team may soon find out whether they can win in March without their floor leader.
Marshall had surgery to insert a screw in his fractured right wrist on Monday, but tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that his cast is already off. North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Tuesday that he does not expect Marshall to play on Friday when the Tar Heels face upset-minded Ohio in the Sweet 16, and he reiterated that thought on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” on Wednesday.
“What we’re going to do is just practice every day, and if something weird happens that they say he can play, I’m probably going to let the guy play,” Williams said. “But I just do not foresee that happening.”
Williams has consistently said the team does not know whether or not Marshall might be cleared to play as the questions continue to come from reporters on a daily basis. Marshall’s father, Dennis, meanwhile, caused a stir earlier when he texted a CBS reporter Jeff Goodman “hang onto your seatbelt” shortly after Marshall’s procedure.
Marshall’s court vision and precision passing on fast breaks and in the half court set have made him one of the nation’s top point guards. He leads the country with 351 assists this season and averages nearly 10 (9.8) per game. But Marshall has picked up his play on the offensive end of late as well. After cracking double figures in scoring in four of the team’s first 30 games, he has scored at least 11 points in six straight, making defenses who sag on him to double-team leading scorers Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes pay.
If Marshall cannot play, the Tar Heels go from a favorite to meet Kentucky in the national championship to perhaps the most vulnerable No. 1 seed in the field. When Dexter Strickland tore his ACL at Virginia Tech in January, North Carolina lots its starting shooting guard and Marshall’s primary back up. The only other scholarship point guard on the roster is freshman Stilman White, who has spelled Marshall this season. Needless to say, North Carolina’s options are limited.
Stilman White — The freshman from Wilmington, N.C. played five minutes against Creighton and eight against Vermont and has eclipsed 10 minutes only once this season — he played 11 in a 50-point rout of Nicholls State. White averages less than one point per game, but the Tar Heels need him to distribute, not score. Despite his inexperience, White has proven to be sure-handed with the ball this season — he has only five turnovers in 136 minutes with 19 assists. If Marshall can’t go, White will likely get the start against Ohio.
Justin Watts — A senior from Durham, Watts has filled in at a variety of positions for the Tar Heels, including the point. At 6-foot-5, he’s more suited to the frontcourt and has shown a knack for hitting the boards on both ends. But in a pinch, Watts has been able to bring the ball up and get the offense going. Watts averages one point per game and played only two minutes against Creighton after playing 15 against Vermont.
Harrison Barnes/Reggie Bullock — If they had to, North Carolina’s starting small forward and shooting guard could bring the ball up, but since both players excel when they receive the ball in a position to score, it could limit their offensive outputs. For the Tar Heels to continue their run, Barnes needs to step up, and forcing him to run the offense and score more might be too heavy a burden.
“One thing I’m trying to get them to understand is, you can help us by not hurting us,” Williams told Mike & Mike. “Don’t try to be Kendall Marshall; be what you are. Secure the basketball, don’t put the ball in jeopardy, and move the ball up the floor as quick as you can by dribble or pass. Make the easiest play.”
Ohio boasts an experienced backcourt with juniors Walter Offutt and D.J. Cooper leading the Bobcats in scoring. Offutt paced Ohio with 21 points in their round-of-32 win over South Florida and Cooper had 21 to propel the Bobcats to a round-of-64 upset of 4th-seeded Michigan.
But the bigger concern for the Tar Heels should be the duo’s defensive prowess. Through two tournament games, Offutt already has six steals, while Cooper had two against South Florida. Their active hands could cause issues for an inexperienced ball-handler, and with North Carolina’s focus on pushing the ball up the floor nearly every possession, turnovers could pile up.
Williams has frequently said Marshall is his most indispensable player. But the Tar Heels might need to find a way to win one without him and hope he can go on Sunday against Kansas or N.C. State should they advance.
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