CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall allowed himself to savor his latest double-digit assist effort -- 13 against Clemson on Saturday -- for all of 90 minutes.
"Until I went and checked ESPN, and saw that [Iona's] Scott Machado had 15 assists," he said Monday, smiling and shaking his head. "I was like, 'Oh, God. I'm still struggling to catch this guy.'"
Don't get the sophomore Bob Cousy Award candidate wrong. The first way Marshall judges his play is whether his seventh-ranked team, which faces rival NC State in Raleigh on Tuesday night, wins. "If our team is getting great shots, it doesn't matter to me if I'm getting credit for the assists."
Another way is his turnovers: "I think a good game for me is when I keep them under one or two."
But the pass-first ball handler freely admits he enjoys those double-digit assist games. (He's posted 11 this season and 17 for his career.) And during a season when his closest ACC competition averages more than three fewer dish-outs per game -- the Wolfpack’s Lorenzo Brown is second in the league at 6.5 -- Marshall often looks to Machado's numbers (nation-leading 10.1 assists, compared to Marshall's 9.7) as a personal challenge.
He also eyes the record books, where his 262 assists are closing in on some historic digits.
"Obviously, those are feats I want to accomplish. I know I've got 22 to tie Ed Cota [for the single-season UNC record for assists], I know I've got a long way to go to get the ACC mark," Marshall said. "First and foremost, we want to win games. But I feel like we're winning games at our best when I'm getting my teammates great shots. So they sort of go hand in hand."
Indeed, Marshall's ability to find his teammates 13, 14, 15 times an outing has become so commonplace that it's often taken for granted.
“Sometimes you think, ‘I’m open right now; I’d really like -- and then bam! It’s there," UNC forward Harrison Barnes said. “He always finds you. And that’s why we’ve got the best point guard in the country.”
But what Marshall can do, and so often, is rare.
With six guaranteed games left (four regular-season, at least one ACC tournament, at least one NCAA tournament), Marshall needs to average only 3.83 assists to break Cota's single-season school mark of 284, set in 2000, and would need to average only 7.0 to top Georgia Tech guard Craig Neal’s ACC record of 303, set in the 1987-88 season.
He's on pace to exceed Wolfpack great Chris Corchiani's single-season ACC average of 9.6 assists per game, an ACC record that has stood since 1991. (Cota holds the school record at 8.1.)
Marshall already has posted five career games with 15 or more assists. To put that into perspective, Raymond Felton (18), Jeff Lebo (17) and Cota (17) are the only other players in UNC history who have dished out that many in a single outing. And they did it only once apiece.
“He’s so unique -- you don’t see many guys like him,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Saturday. “His ability to pass, his unselfishness, his IQ for the game is tremendous. Who wouldn’t want to play with that guy? Who wouldn’t want to coach him? He takes so much pressure off you as a head coach because he makes so many decisions that you don’t need to tell him a whole lot.”
Everyone likes to talk about Marshall's extraordinary court vision, but there's more to it than just seeing (especially considering he wears a contact in his left eye). It's about feel, about thinking two or three throws ahead, about knowing exactly where his teammates want to catch the ball and being able to get it there.
Marshall freely admits he lacks the foot speed of most elite point guards, but he pushes the ball up the court with lightning pinpoint throws -- looking not for the first pass but envisioning the one that ultimately leads to a bucket.
“I think that's where Kendall is different than any other point guard in the country -- he can really pass ahead," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And not just a pass ahead for somebody to make a move. He's made the move for the guy with the pass.”
UNC coach Roy Williams said that’s an innate skill that can’t really be coached.
“Great poker players have that memory, and I think Kendall sees the game as a whole," Williams said. “It’s hard. Some players never see the game as a whole. Tyler Hansbrough did not. It was ‘Give me the ball, I’m putting it in that basket.’ But Kendall sees the whole court -- and when he doesn’t see it, he still has that vision in his head.”
Marshall said he doesn’t know exactly where his court sight comes from, only that he’s always loved to pass. Growing up, he remembers, his dad actually used to get mad at him for not shooting the ball more.
And although he’s worked on his shot this season (he’s averaging 6.6 points), he’s still always looking for his teammates first. “That’s what makes our team special," senior forward Tyler Zeller said. And Marshall, who is averaging a team-leading 32.4 minutes, so invaluable.
In the coming weeks, there will be plenty of debate about ACC Player of the Year candidates, and "Barnes" and "Zeller" will be among the most repeated names in the chatter.
Marshall, though, should be credited for the often-umpteen times he finds the duo (and the rest of his teammates) for dunks or hook shots or jumpers. Even though he allows himself only scant hours to enjoy those double-digit outings and soon-to-be records.
“I do pay attention," he said, “... but winning games comes first.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.