North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech preview: Slow-footed Kendall Marshall finding place in Tar Heels' high-speed attack

Former Archbishop O'Connell All-Met Kendall Marshall, passing against Texas last month, is not very fast but leads North Carolina in assists despite playing just 15 minutes per game.
Former Archbishop O'Connell All-Met Kendall Marshall, passing against Texas last month, is not very fast but leads North Carolina in assists despite playing just 15 minutes per game. "He's a true quarterback," Tar Heels Coach Roy Williams said. "He gets the ball to the right places, he makes good decisions with the ball." (Chuck Burton/associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:58 AM

BLACKSBURG, VA. - Back before this college basketball season began, North Carolina junior Tyler Zeller was one of several teammates who would tease freshman Kendall Marshall about his speed.

"He's really slow and we don't understand how he's a point guard," Zeller said with a smile in October during ACC media day.

Almost three months later, Marshall, a 2010 All-Met who starred at Bishop O'Connell, hasn't gotten any faster. But he's still turning heads around Chapel Hill with his vision and playmaking skills, dishing out a team-high 4.1 assists per game while averaging just 15 minutes of playing time through 15 games.

And it's his ability to speed up North Carolina - a program that has thrived on the fast break over the years - that worries Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg most as the Hokies (10-4, 1-1 ACC) get set to visit the Tar Heels on Thursday night riding a six-game win streak.

Marshall's passing skills and anticipation have matched up well with Coach Roy Williams's fast-paced style, where "his goal as a coach is he doesn't want to call any plays. If we can score on fast breaks, that makes the game a lot easier," Marshall said.

No longer the star like he was in the Washington area, Marshall's contributions have helped buoy the Tar Heels (11-4, 1-0) following Williams's worst season since coming back to Chapel Hill in 2003.

"Sometimes those guys that fill a role that's perfect for them, end up being a star, and that's what Kendall has the opportunity to do," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "He's a true quarterback. He moves the ball, he gets the ball to the right places, he makes good decisions with the ball."

Marshall's story is an unorthodox one. As a sixth-grader growing up in Dumfries, he was rated by one publication as the top player in the country for his age group. He even played high school-level basketball at Evangel Christian School while still in middle school.

By the time he reached O'Connell as a high school sophomore in 2007, he'd already orally committed to North Carolina and become a target every time he touched the floor in the highly competitive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.

"My strength in high school was not scoring, so for people to always look at me and say, 'You need to score 20 points,' it was a bit stressful at times," Marshall said. "Whereas down here, I guess you could say I'm in my natural habitat."

That he is, despite splitting time with junior Larry Drew. Though he's also been fighting through some tendinitis in his knee, Marshall is thriving in this new, secondary role. Williams said Marshall has been an asset on the offensive end, while Drew is the better defender of the two. He'd "like to mesh both of them and the one player that came out of that would be an unbelievable player for us."

But the battle for minutes between Marshall and Drew simply highlights the wealth of talent at North Carolina's disposal. Both players are former McDonald's all-Americans - two of seven on this year's team. Ten Tar Heels players are averaging more than 10 minutes per game.

The Hokies, meanwhile, have just eight scholarship players on their entire roster after losing five to injuries or transfer this season. It's for this reason Greenberg has stressed two words to his depleted team as it prepared for the Tar Heels this week: "Get back."

"They're gonna sub, they're gonna keep pressure on you, they're gonna run. That's Carolina's system," Greenberg said. "They've got a lot of weapons, so obviously we don't wanna just trade bullets with them. They've got more bullets."

Last year, when the Tar Heels finished with a disappointing 20-17 record and didn't qualify for the NCAA tournament, they averaged 72 possessions per 40 minutes. Williams's national championship teams at North Carolina in 2005 and 2009 averaged 76 and 75 possessions per game, respectively. That figure is up to 74 for this year's squad, but the Tar Heels managed just 63 possessions when they were nearly upset by Virginia last weekend.

And while Greenberg said his team won't try to slow down Thursday night's game, sophomore Erick Green said a point of emphasis in practice has been picking up North Carolina's point guards early in transition, an attempt to cut down on easy layups.

But catching Marshall shouldn't be an issue. As for the rest of his teammates, that could ultimately determine whether the Hokies' win streak comes to an end or not.

"The point guard isn't supposed to be one of the slowest players on the team," Marshall said. "So of course they rag on me a little bit about it, but they realize that even though I may not be as fast as others, I can still get the job done. Every second of every practice we're on offense, we're on the run. The game's a lot more exciting when it's upbeat and fast."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company