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December 31, 2011When Larry Drew ran like a rabbit in the middle of the 2011 basketball season, racing back to California to enroll at UCLA, his departure opened Carolina to the magic of Kendall Marshall.
Sunday at 3 p.m., Marshall will lead his team against Monmouth (2-11). The Tar Heels will attempt to break the Smith Center record for consecutive wins with 26.
"It means a lot," junior forward John Henson said. "I was here when we lost. Now I'm here when we won. It's a great feeling."
Meanwhile, Sunday's game will also be yet another homecoming for a former Carolina player who is now a head coach. King Rice is in his first season as the Hawks' head coach. Two of his assistants are starters from the 1993 national championship team, Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese.
Until his first game as a starter, there had been plenty of detractors tossing negativity Marshall's way. Some wondered if Marshall could compete at this level. Could he defend? Could he score enough to keep a defense honest? And how was he going to run the famous Tar Heel fast break when foot speed is one of his lesser attributes?
Marshall answered a lot of questions in his first game as the starter, passing 16 assists in a convincing victory against Florida State. Marshall literally controlled the game from his position.
Since then, he's had a bench full of happy teammates. He continues to answer the questions that follow him still. For example, he had three steals in the Tar Heels' 100-62 victory against Elon on Thursday.
"With the ball he is about as good as anyone I've ever had," Coach Roy Williams said. "When he is playing the way Kendall can play, he pitches it ahead better than anyone I've ever had. He reads the guy guarding the screener, who is the guy who is going to be the help guy. That is the guy you have to read if you're going to throw the lob.
"He has tremendous basketball savvy and thinks the game really well."
Marshall is tied with Scott Machado of Iona for tops in the nation in assists per game with an average of 10.5. He is fourth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, but of the three people ahead of him, only one person has as many as 49 assists. Marshall and Machado have each thrown 115 assists.
Nonetheless, Marshall's basketball intelligence may be the No. 1 thing that separates him from the average point guard.
"His basketball IQ is very high," said Tyler Zeller, often the recipient of Marshall's long passes on the fast break. "He's superb at understanding each individual player. If somebody hasn't had a shot in a long time, or somebody is on a roll, he understands how many different ways to get them the ball where they want the ball and the timing with how they want the ball."
Watch Marshall during introductions and one can see how much the game means to him. While his teammates are jumping around and acknowledging the crowd, Marshall calmly rises from his seat and walks to meet the other four starters, the game obviously a priority in his mind.
In Marshall, the fifth-ranked Tar Heels (12-2) have the ideal facilitator and leader when the team is on the court. Now he is becoming a better defender as well.
"You wonder why players like Jason Kidd can guard players like Russell Westbrook?" Marshall said. "Russell Westbrook is one of the most athletic players in the league, but Jason Kidd is one of the smartest.
"When you play angles and keep your man in front of you, it makes it a lot harder [on the opponent]," Marshall said. "You can eliminate that athleticism sometimes."
Marshall makes a good point. Just listen to what Dallas Morning News columnist Jean-Jacques Taylor said about the matchup between Kidd and Westbrook.
"We all slobbered over Dirk [Nowitzki]," Taylor said. "Great, no problem. But Jason Kidd is so good, man, that even at his advanced age for an athlete, it's ridiculous.
"He schooled the second-team All-NBA point guard, Russell Westbrook; it was a blowout. If it had been a fight, it would have been stopped on cut. He beat him up and controlled every facet of the game."
Marshall is not to that point yet, but he has no match as a passer in the collegiate game today.
Early against Elon, Henson beat the Phoenix defenders down the court. Nonetheless, two Elon players stood almost side-by-side between Henson and Marshsall, who was at the opposite end of the court.
Marshall did not hesitate. He whipped a full-court pass to Henson, threading it through the two defenders the way a strong-armed quarterback will do with double coverage in the secondary.
Henson got the ball and dunked it easily for two points. It was nothing short of spectacular to watch from behind Marshall and see how little room existed for error.
"I saw them, and honestly, when it left my hands I didn't know if it was going to get through," Marshall said. "I feel like my biggest problem is I believe there is no pass I can't complete."
Henson was not sure, either, but he has faith in Marshall, as do all the Tar Heels.
"When he threw that pass," Henson said, "it barely went over the finger tips of those two defenders and right into my hands.
"The more I play with him, the more I can see what he wants to do," Henson said. "I can get into the position where he wants to pass it."
For Marshall, success is built on intangibles that are not always obvious to the observer.
"I think I see the game a lot slower," Marshall said. "I never had to rely on my athleticism. So I've always had to think two or three plays ahead. I feel like that has always helped me out.
"I didn't grow or get much stronger until later in high school," Marshall said, "so just little things like that have helped me become more of a thinking player."
And a big-time winner as well.