|Roy Williams sounds like he's ready to coach Friday vs. Ohio without Kendall Marshall. (US Presswire)|
ST. LOUIS -- The brace on North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall's right wrist is full of clues, if you're inclined to look for them. And you had better look, because listening does no good at all. Will the most important player on the UNC roster -- not the most talented; the most important -- play Friday against Ohio University in the Sweet 16?
Don't bother listening. Listening does no good. UNC coach Roy Williams won't rule Marshall out, even as he acknowledges how ludicrous it is that Marshall might play Friday. Just five days earlier, Marshall broke a bone in his right wrist. That was Sunday. On Monday, he underwent surgery. By Thursday, according to Williams, "The kid can't brush his teeth."
Which raises more questions. Marshall is left-handed, and the injury is to his right wrist. Does he brush with his off hand? And even if he does, is he not coordinated enough to make do with his left? Maybe a teammate could brush his teeth for him. And what about flossing? Marshall doesn't want to lose his teeth when he's 70 because he didn't floss at 20, does he?
Questions, I tell you. Questions. That's all we have, and the answers are garbage. While Williams is on the podium saying he has "a strong, strong inclination [Marshall]'s not going to play," Marshall is in the locker room sounding the same way. Marshall is in there talking up his backup, Stilman White, even if the idea of White starting in the Sweet 16 is simply ludicrous. This time last year, White was a good high school point guard averaging three assists per game. This time next year, he'll be serving the first of a two-year Mormon mission. This time Friday night, this 6-foot, 160-pound freshman -- averaging 0.7 points in four minutes per game -- will be starting in the Sweet 16?
Ludicrous -- but Marshall is going there, saying, "Stilman can get the job done," and adding, "Whether or not I'm playing, Carolina basketball will still be on the court."
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Uplifting words, misleading words, or simply empty ones? Impossible to say. You can listen to UNC people for hours and hear nothing, so instead you have to look. And the place to look is on Marshall's right wrist, at the cast.
It's not a cast, for one thing. That's your first clue. Marshall's wrist isn't so vulnerable that it has to be protected by something hard -- plaster, metal, whatever -- these few days after surgery. The brace is made of cloth and Velcro. So that's your first clue.
Second clue? The words on the brace, handwritten words written there by Kendall Marshall himself. It says, "Pass first."
And when you think about it, Kendall Marshall could do just that Friday. I mean, he does that most of the time he plays. "Pass first" is more than a way of basketball for Marshall; it's a way of life. He says a nameless UNC student -- just someone passing on campus -- told him a while back that Marshall plays a "pass first" style, and for some reason, that resonated. It resonated beyond basketball, actually, resonated to the point that Marshall was saying Thursday that "if we can take [pass first] a step further, put other people ahead of ourselves, we can become better people. Lately I've been trying to embrace that."
And maybe Friday he'll try to embrace "pass first" more than he ever has on the court. If you think about it hard enough, you can fathom a way that Marshall could play Friday, just five days after breaking his wrist, just four days after having surgery on it. It would hurt, but Marshall doesn't seem worried about the pain. He's worried about two other things -- strength and range of motion -- and he says he won't know if he has enough of either until shortly before tipoff.
But you can see how this would happen. With such enormously talented, enormously athletic -- and flat-out enormous -- teammates, Marshall wouldn't have to use his right hand all that much. If push comes to shove, he shoots lefty anyway, but with a frontcourt of future NBA first-round picks Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, how much shooting does Marshall really have to do?
Besides, North Carolina might need him just as much on the defensive end. The best player at Ohio plays the same position as Marshall -- point guard, a fabulous junior named D.J. Cooper -- and the Tar Heels don't have many options to defend him. Stilman White? Well, he could try. After that, though, the UNC player most likely to defend Cooper would be its other starting guard, Reggie Bullock, and Bullock is more of a small forward, a 6-7 shooter who would most likely be eaten alive by the 5-11 Cooper.
Who does that leave to defend Cooper? It leaves the guy in the soft brace, Marshall, who didn't practice Thursday -- he sat out the Tar Heels' private workout earlier as well as their public practice at the Edward Jones Dome -- and who doesn't know if he can play Friday.
"I don't know," he said, over and over and over.
Sick of that, I tried to find another way around the question. Instead of asking about Marshall, I asked Roy Williams about Stilman White. I don't remember exactly how I phrased it, but it was something like this:
"If Marshall can't go, is Stilman White really going to play?"
Williams looked at me, nodded, and said, "He really is."
White was giggling when he said it. Could be another clue. Or maybe he thought my green shirt looked funny.