Marshall makes Tar Heels a title contender

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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Will Kendall Marshall display the same hunger this season that he a year ago? (Getty Images)  
Will Kendall Marshall display the same hunger this season that he a year ago? (Getty Images)  

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Harrison Barnes stepped foot on campus as the savior, the one who would help escalate North Carolina back to its rightful place atop the college basketball world.

He would have plenty of help up front from the likes of "Plastic Man," better-known as John Henson, the 6-foot-11 athletic big man who has NBA types drooling because of his endless length and untapped potential.

Then there's Tyler Zeller, the team's leading returning scorer and veteran of the group. He's a guy who also has pro scouts gushing due to his ability to run the court like a guard -- not a 7-footer.

Three guys -- all potential lottery picks -- according to just about every NBA player-personnel type I've encountered.

But they are just mediocre.

They were mediocre.

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Before life with Kendall Marshall.

Marshall, a fairly unathletic, non-shooting point guard, is what makes this Tar Heels team one that puts the fear of God into opponents.

He's the one chiefly responsible for turning North Carolina from a train wreck -- which is what it was for much of the first two months a season ago -- into the buzzsaw that is ranked by just about everyone as the No. 1 team in the land entering the 2011-12 campaign.

Marshall is also the one to credit for turning Barnes' freshman campaign from a complete disaster to what can be deemed primarily a success.

Marshall makes Zeller a star, taking pinpoint passes in stride while streaking down the court in transition.

"He's not only as important," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "He's more important."

There's no denying it, either. We saw it firsthand last season.

With that other guy, Larry Drew II (I promised I wouldn't slaughter him again in this column) running the show, the Tar Heels lost just about every formidable nonconference matchup sans a home victory over Kentucky.

There were the setbacks to Minnesota and Vanderbilt, one to Illinois and then another against Texas.

Barnes couldn't get on track. His shot selection was abysmal. Henson struggled to find a rhythm and Zeller had to work for everything.

Then it all changed on Jan. 18 against Clemson.

That's when Williams finally and mercifully inserted Marshall into the starting lineup.

Five consecutive victories and the abrupt departure of Drew from the program followed. The Tar Heels won 14 of their next 15, finished 17-3 with Marshall running the ballclub and nearly knocked off Kentucky to go to the Final Four.

"In the second half of last year, I've never seen a point guard as a freshman do as many things as Kendall did to help the team win," Williams said.

Marshall is a rare breed.

A pure point guard, one who would much prefer to set his teammates up for easy baskets than get his own.

There aren't many of those around anymore.

"People look at me like there's something wrong with me," Marshall said. "That I don't score enough. But that's not my calling."

Just like the young, white head coach has become the fad due to the success of Butler's Brad Stevens, the same can be said for the ultra-athletic lead guard.

Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

All the young point guards nowadays want to score with the ball first and foremost. Sure, Rose and Westbrook rack up plenty of assists -- but they aren't true point guards.

Not in the mold of the way we used to define a floor leader with Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Jason Kidd.

"Kendall's an old-school point guard," Williams said.

Marshall said that back in the day, up until his sophomore year of high school, he was a lights-out, knock-down perimeter shooter.

"Then I had a growth spurt, put on weight and my body -- and game -- transformed," Marshall said. "My game became more rugged, I invited contact and wanted to get to the basket."

Marshall's numbers were hardly of the staggering variety as a freshman, but he's one of those guys with which numbers don't tell the entire story.

He only averaged 6.2 points per game, but put up nearly seven assists per game in ACC play. And he has quickly become the vocal leader on the team.

Marshall's game wouldn't fit just anywhere. He isn't afraid to admit that he needs talent around him -- since he's not the most athletically gifted individual -- and that's what makes his presence in Chapel Hill ideal.

"I'm at my best with weapons around me," Marshall said.

He has everything from rifles to machine guns to grenades to a full-fledged nuclear assault in the arsenal.

"It's a dream for any point guard playing with all these guys," Marshall said. "Without a doubt."

Williams has spoken to Marshall at length about sustaining that hunger he possessed a year ago in his bid to fight with Drew II for playing time, about having to improve his perimeter shot and work on his lateral quickness on the defensive end.

Marshall has spent countless hours in the gym this past offseason shooting the ball so that defenders no longer disrespect him by going under screens.

"There's always been knocks on me for things I can't do," Marshall said. "Too short, unathletic, can't score."

"What drives me?" he asked. "I want to prove people wrong."

Skeptics remain, those who question whether his game will translate to the next level.

Whether he will join Barnes, Henson and likely Zeller as well -- on the podium this June to shake NBA commissioner David Stern's hand.

It may not happen, but on this team it's Marshall who is the star.

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