Key to UNC’s Title Hopes Lie With Kendall Marshall (But Not the Way You Think)Posted by rtmsf on December 12th, 2011
Will Rothschild is a RTC correspondent. He can be found on Twitter @warothschild. He filed this report following Saturday night’s North Carolina-Long Beach State game from Chapel Hill, N.C.
Long Beach State knew the blueprint to win in Blue Heaven. At this point it’s not a big secret:
- Challenge Kendall Marshall on the defensive end.
- Challenge Kendall Marshall on the offensive end.
It may seem counterintuitive to dare one of the top two or three point guards in college basketball to beat you. But that’s the strategy opposing teams are sticking with so far – if for no other reason than no one has found any other vulnerability on a team that was the consensus preseason favorite to win the national championship. Of course, this is a program accustomed to being a big target – this year marked the third time since 2007-08 the Tar Heels entered the season ranked No. 1. And if any of the current Tar Heels understand the tradition in Chapel Hill and the pressure to perform that comes with wearing the famous argyle-trimmed uniform, it’s Marshall. The sophomore from Dumfries, Virginia, fell in love with the Carolina program as a grade-schooler, and committed to Roy Williams before his sophomore year of high school. So it’s perhaps fitting that Marshall, more than any other Tar Heel, is who must shoulder the burden of the one player opponents look to try to attack the most.
Case in point was Saturday night’s 84-78 defeat of Long Beach State. Betcha’ never seen a stat line like this before from a preseason All-American:
- 1-for-6 shooting.
- Two points.
- Three rebounds.
- And… wait for it… 16 assists.
And when Marshall – now averaging an even 5.0 points to go along with 10.2 assists per game – was at his best for about a 10-minute stretch in the middle of the second half, Carolina was rolling, the Smith Center was rocking, and the Beach was on the verge of getting routed. Reggie Bullock was pouring in jumpers, Tyler Zeller was finishing on the break, and John Henson was dunking, all at the other end of Marshall’s room-service passing. But – and there always seems to be a “but” with Marshall and the Tar Heels these days – you could argue the game against the 49ers (4-5) was a lot closer than it should have been because of how well LBSU stuck to its Marshall Plan.
If his old-school, dime’s-height-at-best jump shot isn’t Marshall’s – and Carolina’s – biggest liability, it’s his lateral quickness. Or, rather, his lack of it. So far this season, guard after guard has attacked Marshall off the dribble. UNLV point guard Oscar Bellfield scored 16 points and handed out nine assists while repeatedly beating Marshall off the bounce as UNC fell 90-80, while Kentucky guards Marquis Teague and Darius Miller combined for 19 points in the 73-72 Wildcats win. On Saturday night, it was Long Beach’s Casper Ware, a jitterbug 5’10” senior who torched the Tar Heels for 29. Sixteen of those came in the first 6½ minutes. “I thought he was going to score 60,” said Carolina forward Harrison Barnes. Chimed in Williams: “One of our goals was to try to contain Casper, and we couldn’t do it. I mean, he was like the friendly ghost, he went wherever he wanted to go.”
By halftime Ware had outscored the 6’4” Marshall 21-0 and the Beach had taken a 45-40 lead that had the Carolina coach fuming in the locker room. “He said a few things that we weren’t so fond of,” Henson said. “He said he hoped he never had to say those things again after the game, but I think it pushed us and we needed it.” In the second half, Ware indeed slowed down, scoring just eight points and missing all three of his three-point attempts. Not coincidentally, Dexter Strickland and the 6’7” Bullock took turns along with Marshall guarding Ware over the final 20 minutes. “He was a load for us in the first half. I thought we did a little better in the second half,” Williams said. “Kendall got up on him a little bit better, Dexter and Reggie got up on him better and helped out. But (Ware) also helped us by missing some.”
At the other end, Marshall kept on missing some, following up an 0-for-3 first half with a 1-for-3 second half. But if his shooting wasn’t any better, his play was significantly more aggressive – and the Tar Heels finally started clicking during a run that turned a six-point deficit into an 11-point lead with 8½ minutes to play. Whereas Marshall was content to float around the perimeter in the first half trying desperately to open up Long Beach’s sagging man-to-man by shooting three-pointers (all of his first-half shots were from beyond the arc), in the second he eschewed the jump shot and began to attack the basket, making one layup and missing two others in heavy traffic. Meanwhile, the assists started piling up, 12 of them over the final 20 minutes as he tied his career high of 16. This, even though the 49ers stuck with their strategy of dropping off Marshall to keep the lane jammed.
“I know people cheat, teams cheat with their defense,” Marshall said. “I definitely noticed it with Wisconsin (a 60-57 UNC win on November 30). They were sagging in, but at the end of the day, we don’t want to get away from what we do well. Our strength is working from the inside out, and we still want to do that. But at some time, you have to make the defense pay for sagging in like that.”
That time hasn’t arrived yet. After Saturday’s performance, Marshall is now shooting just 35.4%from the field, including a 28.6% mark from three-point range. While not exactly lighting the world on fire last season, his numbers were considerably better: 41.8% overall, 37.7% from beyond the arc. So there is evidence – his old-man-at-the-Y form notwithstanding – that he’s a better shooter than he’s shown through 10 games. He said Saturday his shot has been falling consistently in practice, but simply hasn’t carried over to games. “That’s exactly what it is, and why it can be so frustrating at times because I feel like I’m a good shooter,” he said. “I work on it, I shoot the ball well and game day it just hasn’t shown yet. But I have full confidence that eventually it will start going in.”
If it does, look out. On a team with seemingly every other element you could want, that would be a dream come true for the Tar Heels. And the rest of the country’s worst nightmare.