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Posted at 11:14 AM ET, 01/19/2012

Virginia Tech vs. North Carolina: Former All-Met Kendall Marshall leads ‘focused’ Tar Heels into Blacksburg


“We’re focused. We’re ready to get back to the team we were before that game,” North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall, right, said of the Tar Heels’ stunning blowout loss to Florida State on Saturday. (Gerry Broome - AP)
Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg knows all too well his Hokies are facing No. 8 North Carolina at an inopportune time, joking often this week that “I want to thank Leonard for that.”

Greenberg is referencing Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team dealt the Tar Heels a 33-point loss in Tallahassee, Fla., this past weekend, the worst defeat since Coach Roy Williams returned to his alma mater before the 2003-04 season.

So while the talk among Virginia Tech fans has surrounded the team’s 0-3 start to ACC play, the bigger national story line heading into Thursday’s matchup between the Tar Heels and Hokies at Cassell Coliseum is focused on North Carolina and how it will respond after such a lopsided setback.

If this week’s ACC teleconference was any indication, Williams certainly isn’t in a good mood. He began his call with reporters by saying: “I’d just as soon open it for questions. We were so bad on Saturday.” Later, when asked what signs he was looking for from his team in practice, Williams responded, “See if we live.”

“We’re not going to go up and beat Virginia Tech just because we lost on Saturday,” he added. “People say, ‘Oh, they’re going to bounce back.’ It makes no difference. We could go up there and play well and still not be successful. We’ve just got to do a heck of a lot better job.”

This, though, isn’t necessarily an angry bunch despite some brutal practices, North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall said this week in a telephone interview. They’re just not used to losing that badly.

“We’re focused. We’re ready to get back to the team we were before that game,” he said. North Carolina’s only other losses this year have come on the road to No. 2 Kentucky and No. 14 UNLV. “That just wasn’t us at all. We went back and watched the film and that whole game was very uncharacteristic of what type of team we are. We didn’t compete the way we wanted to and hopefully we can make a 180-degree turn from that.”

Marshall is part of a Tar Heels starting lineup that might be the most talented in the country. Three players who would have likely been lottery picks in the NBA draft a year ago – forwards Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller – all decided to come back to school after North Carolina made a run to the Elite Eight last spring.

Marshall, a former All Met from O’Connell High, is no slouch either. He joined Barnes and Henson as players named to the Wooden Award midseason watch list this week, and his current 9.6 assists per game pace would tie an ACC record.

Marshall said he doesn’t really practice his passing skills, because “it’s pretty much been something that’s natural.” This week, Greenberg compared Marshall to former Tar Heels star and current Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, a Clinton native.

“Ty brought it at warp speed. Kendall brings it at warp speed but he does it with in the air,” Greenberg said. “It’s a lot easier to pass the ball up the floor than it is to dribble it up the floor and he’s probably the best I’ve ever seen at pitching it ahead.”

The last time North Carolina and Virginia Tech faced off was a pivotal moment for Marshall. He scored nine points and dished out nine assists while sharing time with starting point guard Larry Drew. It was his best all-around game of the year to that point.

“That’s the game where I started to gain the most confidence, and I guess I could tell myself I could play at this level,” Marshall said this week. “I was still hesitant and out there trying to just fit in. But I thought I could really contribute to my team after that game.”

Three days after the Tar Heels beat Virginia Tech, 64-61, they lost by 20 to Georgia Tech. Drew left the team soon thereafter and Marshall was thrust into a starting role. After going 12-5 to begin the season, North Carolina won 22 of its final 25 games with Marshall leading the way.

But the Dumfries native has a little extra incentive heading into Thursday’s matchup, aside from the Florida State drubbing his Tar Heels took five days ago. He and Virginia Tech point guard Erick Green went head-to-head for one year when both played in the WCAC, the Washington area’s top high school basketball league.

At the end of the 2008-09 campaign, when Green was a senior and Marshall was a junior, Green’s Paul VI sqaud got the better of Marshall’s O’Connell team twice in the postseason – once in the WCAC playoffs and again at the state tournament. Marshall still remembers, even though he exacted some revenge a year ago when North Carolina beat the Hokies.

“I think he won our last two battles in high school, so I’m still trying to even out that record,” Marshall said. “He’s been having a great year. I’m excited to play against him. Their team is pretty athletic. They have a lot of young guys who I’m excited to play. Hopefully we can go in there and compete hard. From what I’ve heard Virginia Tech is a pretty tough place to play.”

By Mark Giannotto  |  11:14 AM ET, 01/19/2012

 
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