ST. LOUIS — As North Carolina’s assortment of future NBA draft picks drew “ooohhs” and “ahhhs” from the collection of Tar Heels fans who made the trek to Edward Jones Dome for Thursday’s open practice session, it wasn’t John Henson or Harrison Barnes who drew the loudest cheers during an end-of-practice dunk session.
Instead, the only thunderous applause came when 6-foot, 160-pound Stilman White leaped just high enough to reach above the rim and slam home a one-handed finish.
If not for the broken wrist point guard Kendall Marshall suffered at the end of the Tar Heels’ win over Creighton in the round of 32 last Sunday, White would be nothing more than a blip on the radar this week as North Carolina prepares for Friday’s Midwest Region semifinal game against Ohio. After all, it was only last January that he received a late scholarship offer from Coach Roy Williams as he was deciding between BYU, Utah State and UNC Wilmington.
But White has been thrust into the spotlight as Marshall’s likely replacement should the former All-Met from Bishop O’Connell not be able to play Friday night against the 13th-seeded Bobcats.
“It’s been crazy, I’m not gonna lie,” said White, who has played just 136 minutes this season. “I don’t think I’m as nervous as people think I am.”
His life isn’t the only one that has changed in a matter of days. Marshall’s father, Dennis, has become a de facto media liaison for his son this week, prompting members of North Carolina’s staff to joke that he’s done more interviews than the Tar Heels players.
Dennis Marshall said Thursday after making the 14-hour drive from Dumfries to St. Louis that he’s fielded “dozens” of phone calls and texts from media members and friends all trying to get the inside scoop on his son’s injury. Even he doesn’t know for sure, though.
“If he doesn’t play [Friday], I’d bet money he plays Sunday” should the Tar Heels advance, Dennis Marshall said as he watched Kendall on the bench while North Carolina went through practice.
Williams didn’t sound as optimistic, saying Thursday he had a “strong, strong inclination that he is not going to play. . . . I mean, the guy can’t brush his teeth right now.”
But that hasn’t stopped the speculation surrounding Kendall Marshall’s availability. Whether it’s the type of cast he’s now wearing to the Twitter movement the wrist has inspired — Tar Heel fans have taken to using the hashtag “PassFir5st” and writing Marshall’s No. 5 on their right wrists — Marshall’s potential recovery from Monday’s surgery has dominated talk this week.
For his part, Marshall said Thursday he will participate in North Carolina’s pregame shoot-around Friday morning and a decision will be made from there depending on how much pain he’s in and whether his range of motion has improved.
“I feel like ultimately it is my decision, and at the end of the day [Williams] has to have faith that I’m gonna be competitive and not put myself in danger. He’s told me that if I come to him and say, ‘I’m ready to play,’ he’ll definitely look at it,” said Marshall, who broke the ACC’s single-season assists record this season by averaging 9.75 per game. “I’ve been through so many emotions the past week. I feel like I did this almost a month ago.”
But Marshall tried his best to not seem so irreplaceable, emphasizing that “basketball will go on with or without Kendall.” He even tried to convince reporters that the Tar Heels could be better off, even though Ohio’s pressure defense forces 17 turnovers per game. White and forward Justin Watts — who will also fill in at point guard — are better shooters and more active defensively, he said.
What he failed to mention was that those two had a combined 24 assists all season. For White, though, this could be the last college basketball game he plays for two years. He’s scheduled to go on a two-year Mormon mission after the season ends, just another layer to what could be one of the more unlikely — and short-lived — NCAA tournament star turns ever.
“I have confidence in them, so I hope they have confidence in me,” White said of his teammates. “All you got to do is give them the ball because they’re really talented players.”