This is the first of two stories on incoming guards at North Carolina and N.C. State. Sunday: Lorenzo Brown brings hope to the Wolfpack.
Just after his 3-point shot swished through the net at the buzzer Tuesday night, North Carolina point guard signee Kendall Marshall walked to the visitors' locker room looking dejected - shoulders slumped as rival fans rushed the court.
"I can definitely relate with what [UNC] is going through - because our seasons have gone the same way," the 6-foot-4, 195-pound McDonald's All-American said after his Bishop O'Connell squad lost 59-55 at rival Paul VI, falling to 13-13 for the season. "I don't ever plan to go through another season like this again ... so it just makes me even more determined to come in and help them next year, any way I can."
The question is: How much can he help?
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The Tar Heels (14-14, 3-10 ACC), who play at Wake Forest today, have displayed a multitude of problems during their free fall out of NCAA Tournament at-large contention - from abysmal shooting to inconsistent defense to poor spurts of effort to a basic failure to understand plays.
But the most glaring problem has been point-guard play. Whether it's starter Larry Drew II getting lost in traffic on the way to the basket, or reserve Dexter Strickland dribbling off his foot, UNC's ballhandlers haven't been able to consistently speed, feed or lead - the basic tenets of what coach Roy Williams was able to count on from Adonis Jordan, Aaron Miles, Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson, the floor leaders of his seven Final Four teams at Kansas and Carolina.
"All of them had an ability to push the ball and make good decisions," Williams said of that quartet. "Those were the common threads."
Can Drew and Marshall - who is part of a highly ranked incoming rookie class - do the same?
"It remains to be seen," Williams said. "But I guess the simple answer is, I think so and hope so."
Inconsistent at point
UNC got caught in a maelstrom this season at point guard. Drew, brought in to learn from, then replace, All-America Ty Lawson, was ranked the No. 4 overall point guard recruit in 2008.
Carolina's coaches also counted on the fact that Strickland - a four-star recruit who looked like he was on track to develop more ballhandling skills when he committed to UNC as a high school junior - would be able to bridge the gap as a backup this season. But the freshman has struggled mightily. It also didn't help that Carolina's third backup option, senior shooting guard Marcus Ginyard, suffered injury problems early. Or that seven other Tar Heels also missed at least one game.
"There's been a lot of guys playing a lot of different positions, a lot of different rotations, and I don't know if we've ever been able to get in a set rhythm on offense," Drew said.
Despite all the struggles of this season, Williams insists that Drew, a 6-1 sophomore who is averaging 8.8 points, 5.9 assists and 3.3 turnovers, can still be a good college player: "He's got wonderful feet, he's got long arms, he can defend, he can make a pass - he's just got to make the right one consistently. He can make a good decision, he's just got to make the right one consistently."
And according to Felton, now with the Charlotte Bobcats, there are far more decisions, and at a frantic pace, than the average fan may understand.
"You have to be able to push the ball up the court," Felton said. "But at the same time you've got to run the system, you've got to get guys shots. It's a lot of pressure [mentally] - it ain't easy. It seems like a simple system, but it's about a lot of reads [of the defense]. And that's not easy."
Drew's overall statistics are similar to those of Felton (11.5 ppg, 7.1 apg, 3.5 tpg) and Lawson (10.6 ppg, 5.6 apg, 2.2 tpg) the first seasons they started for Williams; and the coach thinks his current starter is most similar to Jordan - whose caution grew into confidence from the first time he led Kansas to the Final Four in 1991, to the second time in 1993.
But even after averaging 28 minutes per game over 28 contests, Drew is still hesitant to look for his shot, is timid in traffic and is slow to feed his post players. His biggest problem, he admits, "is knowing when to attack, and when to back out and run the offense; what situations to run."
So it's still unclear whether he really has what it takes to lead the Tar Heels to national championships, like his predecessors.
Enter Marshall, a tall, strong, pass-first point guard who last Tuesday showed no hesitation to bully his way to the basket for layups, pull up for 3-pointers or find open teammates. Although his squad is struggling, he has come on strong. He finished with 20 points, six assists, three rebounds and only one turnover in that loss.
"For the last five games, Kendall has played unbelievable," said O'Connell coach Joe Wootten, whose school is located in Arlington, Va. "He's run the show, he's shot when he's supposed to shoot, he's passed when he's supposed to pass, so I think he's played like an All-American."
It hasn't always been that way. Like Carolina, the Knights struggled early with injuries, going on a six-game losing streak in December that made their lineup shift and area rankings topple. In late January, Marshall even came off the bench for a game as Wootten shuffled his rotation try to get something going. (The point guard ended up with 20 points, seven assists and five rebounds and is back in the starting lineup.)
Marshall, who is less speedy but may end up being a better passer and overall half-court floor leader than Felton or Lawson, admits he's at his best when he can distribute. At the NBA Players Association camp last summer in Charlottesville, Va., he consistently found star teammates for layups and dunks on fast breaks and in the half court - when he wasn't using a quick first step to get to the basket himself.
"He's a quarterback," Williams said. "... He's a thinking man's point guard."
But at O'Connell, without Jason Clark or Frank Ben-Eze - now sophomore forwards at Georgetown and Davidson, respectively - Marshall hasn't had the benefit of the consistent finishers of his sophomore season, when he and Reggie Bullock became the youngest players to commit to UNC's program.
It's one of the reasons Marshall's recruiting rankings have fallen from top 10 back then to top 20, according to Scout.com now.
And it's one of the reasons, despite averaging a team-leading 14.4 points, Marshall has heard the chants of "Over-rated!" most of the season - much like the Tar Heels.
"Kendall has always had people who have been critical of him since he was very young, because people have been critical of success," Wootten said. "... He's used it as fuel for his fire, rather than pout and feel sorry for himself."
Which could be a good sign for UNC.
Incoming freshman Harrison Barnes, the top-rated recruit in the country from Iowa, is expected to be the Tar Heels' go-to guy at small forward, next season. Bullock, from Kinston, is a five-star-rated sharpshooter who must bolster Carolina's dismal outside shooting.
Whether he wins the starting position or plays backup minutes, Marshall's addition is important because it will allow Strickland to move back to his natural position, helping further pad the thin and struggling perimeter on a team that has won only two of its last 11 games.
"I talk to Harrison and Reggie every week - sometimes I talk to Reggie a couple times a week," Marshall said. "We lean on each other's shoulders after they lose, and talk about what we saw out there and how we think we can help next year. ... We know we can."
Ultimately, how fast Marshall picks up the intricacies of Williams' schemes - and whether he can carry his strong assist-to-turnover ratio from high school to college - could determine not only whether the Tar Heels can make it back to the NCAA Tournament next year, but if they're capable of building back to another national championship soon.
It's a lot of expectations for a freshman point guard to shoulder, but after such a disappointing season, it is Marshall's top goal. And why he's already talking to his future teammates about what to expect, and how he can prepare.
"Before the season started, I asked Ed [Davis], 'Was it easy or hard?' " Marshall said. "And he said the transition was easy for him, but it's going to be awful for me, because everyone's hardest on the point guards. ... But I'm going to be ready for that."
Carolina is going to need him to be.
Staff writer Rick Bonnell contributed to this report.