Don't forget about Kendall Marshall

June, 7, 2011
06/07/11
11:49
AM ET
The Boston Celtics have employed the Big Three for a few years now.

But everyone who follows the NBA knows that the Big Three isn't complete without an equal if not more critical fourth in point guard Rajon Rondo.

Let's not compare North Carolina's 2011-12 team to the Celtics. But there does seem to be a perception that the big three who decided to turn down the NBA for a year and return to Chapel Hill can somehow exist by themselves.

They can't. The big three at North Carolina -- rising sophomore Harrison Barnes, rising junior John Henson and rising senior Tyler Zeller -- will get most of the headlines for the Tar Heels now and throughout the season.

But they won't win the national championship, outlast Duke for the ACC title or fulfill expectations as the consensus preseason No. 1 without rising sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall.

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North Carolina Tar Heels
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe Tar Heels took off after handing the reins to freshman point guard Kendall Marshall (No. 5).

Marshall is to the Tar Heels what Rondo was to the Celtics before he became an All-Star in advance of the 2008 NBA championship.

The Virginia native took over for UNC on Jan. 18 after Larry Drew II was replaced in the starting lineup, then became the sole point guard on Feb. 6 when Drew quit. Marshall led the Tar Heels to a 20-point win over Florida State that night, with 16 assists and three turnovers. After change at the point, Carolina lost only two more games (both to Duke) before falling to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. In a win over Duke that clinched an unlikely ACC regular-season title, Marshall was at his best: 15 points, 11 assists and just two turnovers.

So, when Marshall got word that Barnes, Zeller and Henson were all coming back for this season, the reaction was, of course, elation.

"We knew that we could get to the Final Four and get further than last year," Marshall said. "We've got great expectations this year, and my job is to be a steady force. My confidence is so much higher now than last year."

Marshall is an old-school college point guard. Not with his game but with his approach to the natural progression in life. A year ago, he arrived at North Carolina and was not ready to assume the leadership role. And why should he be? He was a freshman going into one of the most prestigious programs in the country, playing one of the toughest and most scrutinized positions in the game -- the North Carolina point guard is expected to push the basketball and generate the offense for a team full of McDonald's All-Americans.

Marshall admitted in many interviews last fall -- in Puerto Rico in November, then early in ACC play -- that he wasn't ready to be anointed as the starter. North Carolina coach Roy Williams knew this and wasn't going to push him too soon. It wasn't until the Tar Heels had a stunning 20-point loss at Georgia Tech that Williams had to make the move.

Now, Marshall's demeanor on the phone has changed dramatically. He has matured. He accepts that he is now a leader of a team with expectations to win the national championship -- something that is a yearly affair in Chapel Hill.

"I've made a lot of mature decisions lately," Marshall said. "I'm working out more often, harder and realizing the greater goal that we have to accomplish. I want to be the guy that leads this team now, that makes us better every night."

The Tar Heels will have one of the fleetest set of forwards who can run the floor with incredible length in Zeller and Henson. Barnes can create his own shot, but he will flourish even more when he is set up by Marshall driving and dishing and Barnes slashing for a move from the elbow-extended.

Of course, there are other options, with returnees Reggie Bullock, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland on the wings, and -- of course -- a highly touted incoming class led by a pair of McDonald's All-Americans: power forward James McAdoo and shooting guard P.J. Hairston.

The Tar Heels will have oodles of talent that will need to be massaged so everyone feels a part of the process. Williams and the rest of the coaching staff have to do their part. But Marshall must be the calming influence on the court.

That process starts this summer and has already begun with pickup games against Carolina's NBA alumni.

"We're playing against men out there," Marshall said. "I'm going against Raymond Felton, and that's going to make me better. I think the biggest transition you'll see is defensively. We're going to be a much better defensive team. The last two Carolina teams that won the title were great defensive teams. That's what we have to do this year."

Marshall will head to the Nike-sponsored Chris Paul and Deron Williams camps later this month, but he turned down a chance to try out for the World University Games team going to China in August so he could stay with the Tar Heel teammates. His most important role is to ensure this team is ready for the pressure of being the consensus No. 1 and all the expectations that come with that tag.

"We had an emotional roller coaster last year, but this year we have even more to prove," Marshall said. "The ACC will be stronger. The schedule is strong."

Michigan State is on the UNC schedule early in the Carrier Classic off the coast of San Diego. MSU coach Tom Izzo said this Tar Heels team might be as good as the 2009 title team that beat the Spartans twice that season -- once in the title game.

"That was the first Carolina team that I watched every game of in a season," Marshall said. " &;133; Even to compare us to them is a great honor. We have the potential to get to that level -- whether we do or not depends on what we do defensively."

The statements sound like they come from someone who has found his place in the program. If the actions back up to the words, the Tar Heels will warrant every bit of the media and fan hype that undoubtedly will follow them throughout the season.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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