CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After Kendall Marshall scored 15 points, dished 11 assists and generally ripped apart Duke's defense in North Carolina's 81-67 ACC title-clinching beatdown, Mike Krzyzewski took a seat for his postgame press conference and repeatedly praised the Tar Heels' freshman point guard. Then Roy Williams did the same thing. Tyler Zeller, too. All of which led to me approaching Marshall in the UNC locker room and asking the question every college basketball fan has wanted to ask at one time or another.
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Why did it take you so long to get into the starting lineup?
"No comment," Marshall said through a smile after a brief pause that ensured he would choose his words, or lack of words, wisely. So chalk it up as another smart play by the kid -- the latest and last on a Saturday night that highlighted Marshall's role in North Carolina's turnaround and legitimized the Tar Heels as a serious Final Four contender.
"I think we've come a long way [since November], and I still think we have a long way to go," Marshall said. "Our potential is through the roof."
Almost entirely because of him.
Sure, John Henson is delivering double-doubles more regularly than the Black Eyed Peas play sporting events, and Harrison Barnes now looks like the prospect most thought would be a first-team All-American. But don't get it twisted. It's not a coincidence that both future pros -- and Zeller, too -- started blossoming almost immediately after Williams demoted Larry Drew following an embarrassing loss at Georgia Tech and finally inserted Marshall into the starting lineup. Suddenly, the Tar Heels had a point guard who possessed the one quality almost all great point guards possess, and everybody on UNC's roster has benefitted just like UNC as a whole.
"He's the kind of point guard who does make people better because he gets them the ball where they can shoot and score," Williams said. "From the shoulders up, it's hard to imagine anyone can think it better than he can."
|His teammates know it, his coach knows it and Mike Krzyzewski knows it now: Kendall Marshall makes everyone around him better. (AP)|
That's gotta be why he quit five games after Marshall took his spot, right?
Drew had to know deep down that he was lucky to remain a starter as long as he did, and that there was no way he'd ever take the position back from his younger and more talented teammate. The California native's most relevant days as a Tar Heel were over the second Williams turned to Marshall, which begs the question again: Why did it take so long for Williams to turn to Marshall?
"You're not gonna like my answer," Zeller said. "It's Coach's decision."
But did you see signs of Marshall's greatness in the preseason?
"You could always see in pickup how well he passed the ball and how well he managed the game," Zeller said. "He's a fantastic player. He does a lot of things that make our jobs easy. He can pass you the ball and you just have to lay it up. He can create. And if somebody hasn't had a shot in a long time, he recognizes that and runs a play for them."
And it typically leads to easy buckets.
Which is why North Carolina shot 52.4 percent from the field against Duke.
Which is why North Carolina will be hanging another ACC championship banner soon.
Which is why you'd be wise to have the Tar Heels on your short list of national title contenders.
Thirteen Saturdays ago they were 4-3 and unranked. But they're now 24-6 and poised to move into the top 10 because they've got a star point guard to go with their star wing and huge frontcourt, and that's not something North Carolina had -- or at least it's not something North Carolina utilized -- back when it was losing to Illinois, Minnesota and Georgia Tech while making all of what's happened since seem unlikely.
"I wanted it to be my team from the beginning," Marshall acknowledged. "But I'm just happy that I can be that player now."