OK, Tar Heel Nation take your hand off the panic button. Needless to say, point guard Kendall Marshall’s wrist injury was a big blow to North Carolina’s championship hopes, but don't jump all the way off the cliff just yet.
Remember, the Tar Heels’ roster features four future NBA players, perhaps first-round picks. If Marshall, who had surgery this morning according to UNC, can’t play Friday against 13th seeded Ohio (and we wager he won’t), the Heels still feature three more future NBA players than the upstart Bobcats.
That said, let’s beat the rush and start speculating on the outcome of completely unknown events before the surgeon finishes tightening that screw in the Cousy Award finalist’s scaphoid bone.
First off, here’s what we all know: When Ol Roy’s squad is healthy and they play defense they can be simply overwhelming just like the last North Carolina squad to cut down the nets the first Monday in April. The first thing UNC fans need to do is to forget about the 2009 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship team that blasted through the Big Dance winning by over 20 points a game.
With a healthy Marshall and Henson, the 2012 team had the potential to repeat that spectacular performance, and they displayed that ability for most of the game yesterday against Creighton. However, just because the current Tar Heels can't overwhelm the field like in 2009, that doesn’t mean they can’t still win it all.
Last year, a good but not great Connecticut team got hot late in the season and won it all. In 2010, Duke was elevated by the play of center Brian Zoubek earning the title in a workman like fashion. Prior to the Devils, it was the Tar Heel wrecking crew that featured Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green while in 2008, Kansas won with three players now on NBA rosters. NCAA champions come in all shapes and sizes.
What the Heels have to do now is literally take it one game at a time. If they can find their way to the Final Four, Marshall’s absence will be most noticed in a Final Four game against the likes of Syracuse or a rematch with Kentucky in the final.
For North Carolina, “survive and advance” becomes “survive, advance and heal.”
The Tar Heels should beat the Bobcats, who simply don’t have the talent to keep up with North Carolina even without Marshall. If they make it to the Elite Eight, UNC would face the winner of the N.C. State vs. Kansas game to set up a rematch of sorts regardless of who wins.
North Carolina has already defeated the Wolfpack three times this year and winning a fourth time in a single season against any team is a challenge but far from impossible. Kansas, simply put, was lucky to survive Purdue and certainly looks beatable by three future NBA players. Remember, it was the Jayhawks that knocked the Tar Heels out of the dance in 2008.
So with the preface of a scalable mountain, the question is who will play the point for the Tar Heels next weekend in St. Louis?
While freshman Stilman White has been giving Marshall a breather for a few minutes per game, we doubt the former third-stringer, who plans to head off on his Mormon mission after this season, is at the head of Ol’ Roy’s list. We surmise it will be point guard by committee, and luckily for the Tar Heels the talent pool runs pretty deep.
Senior Justin Watts has played four positions including point guard, and he seems like the leading candidate based on his experience and his well-documented basketball sense. That said, don’t be shocked to see 6’9” Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock handing the ball more as well.
White, a six-foot, 160-pound ball-handler from Wilmington, N.C., averaged 20.5 points and 3.0 assists last season as a senior at Hoggard High. He was signed last spring as insurance to play behind Marshall and starting shooting guard/backup point guard Dexter Strickland.
White played sparingly until Strickland tore the ACL in his right knee at Virginia Tech on January 19 and was lost for the season. Since then, White’s minutes have increased, particularly around timeouts. But so had those of Marshall, who set UNC and ACC records for assists this season.
The 6’5” Watts has played in the post and on the wing for his first three seasons. But this year, the defensive-minded player added another position—point guard. Two games after Strickland was injured, he was inserted at the point for a few minutes during the Tar Heels’ double-digit win over Georgia Tech. Then during the ACC tournament semifinals against N.C. State, Watts was tabbed again to play a couple of point guard stretches because Marshall was in foul trouble.
“I was just catching and pitching ahead; I wasn’t trying to do much,’’ Watts said after the win over the Wolfpack. “When you’ve got guys to throw it into like [Tyler] Zeller and Harrison [Barnes], they make you look a lot better than you are."
So, look for Watts to start and be spelled by White.
And don’t be surprised to see Barnes and Bullock running the ball up court...
Now, obviously, Barnes (who could wake up and explode at any time), Zeller, Henson and Bullock will have to pick up Marshall’s points. Add to that group sixth man James Michael McAdoo who is starting to look like another potential future NBA player on Ol’ Roy’s roster.
Oh, and start breathing normally again.
Three future NBA players really is enough to survive and advance to New Orleans.
If the Tar Heels can grind out two more wins and make it to the Big Easy, we may find out just how tough Kendall Marshall really is.