When Leslie McDonald tore his ACL in July, the collective hoops world shrugged. Sure, the North Carolina guard was a nice player, but UNC's season -- one that promised a run at the national title from the moment Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson eschewed the previous month's NBA draft -- would hardly ride on his presence or lack thereof.
When fellow Tar Heel guard Dexter Strickland tore the ACL in his right knee Jan. 19 at Virginia Tech, there was greater cause for concern, but no full-on freak out. Strickland's absence would weaken Carolina's perimeter defense, no question, but as long as Marshall was around, flinging his trademark pinpoint passes to that loaded frontcourt, Roy Williams' team would still have much to say about the race for the 2012 national title.
On Sunday night, when Marshall crossed to his right hand and drove against Creighton forward Ethan Wragge, he took a hard body foul and landed awkwardly, but nothing seemed amiss. The point guard immediately bounced to his feet. He didn't wince or groan or gingerly rub his right wrist. He walked stonefaced to the free-throw line and he played for most of the rest of UNC's blowout of Creighton, showing no obvious signs that the collision with Wragge had indeed gone seriously, invisibly wrong.
This is the anatomy of a season-changing mid-tournament injury. Months-old personnel losses suddenly loom large. Innocuous falls eventually reveal themselves as dire. And a team with year-old designs on a 2012 national title -- one that remained among the top two or three contenders just 24 hours ago -- can abruptly see their fortunes halted.
Such is the effect of the broken scaphoid bone Marshall suffered in Sunday's 87-73 win over Creighton. The question now is straightforward enough:
Where does UNC go from here if Marshall is unable to play?
First, a caveat: We're not sure Marshall can't play the rest of the way, or that he won't. Maybe the UNC doctors will work wonders. He's having surgery Monday, so maybe he'll battle through the pain and give it a go. Even if he's not at 100 percent, Marshall could still be somewhat effective with the injury.
But on Sunday night, Marshall told reporters that he felt the most pain "any time I tried to dribble with my right hand." Needless to say, that doesn't sound promising.
So if he is out or severely limited -- with an emphasis on if -- how would that affect UNC's chances to win the national title?
To put it simply: It would be a disaster.
It requires no exaggeration to say Marshall is one of the best passers the college game has seen in years. His 351 assists this season were easily the most in a single season in ACC history. (The previous record, set by Craig Neal of Georgia Tech in the 1987-88 season, was 303). Marshall has created an assist on 44.5 percent of his possessions, the third-highest mark in the country.
Much of these assists came on UNC's patented fast break, and rarely has a player so perfectly matched a coach and his system. The point guard's passing is intuitive and frequently brilliant. When he catches the ball on the break, and Henson, Zeller and Barnes are streaking toward the rim, you could rest assured the Tar Heels -- whose 73-possessions-per-game pace make them one of the fastest teams in the country -- are about to get exactly what Williams wants, what he always wants: an easy transition basket.
Marshall has essentially been this good since Williams inserted him into UNC's starting lineup midway through the 2010-11 season. Before the then-freshman took over, Williams was still stubbornly standing by inefficient point guard (and soon-to-be transfer) Larry Drew II, and these Heels were a frustrating, disjointed offensive group. The disappointing losses, including a 20-point loss at Georgia Tech, piled up. Harrison Barnes, the No. 1 recruit and putative savior, had been written off as a bust. Carolina fans -- fearful of a repeat of 2010's disastrous 20-17 finish -- were on the verge of revolt.
After the switch, everything changed, and North Carolina caught fire and won the ACC regular-season title.
The Tar Heels as we now know them -- a high-flying, fluid, uptempo offensive team straight out of Roy Williams central casting -- were born. This was not a coincidence.
Of late, as teams scouted UNC and coaches decided their best bet was to play off Marshall and force him to shoot, the point guard expanded his game further. Marshall scored in double figures in six straight games after pulling that off in just four of the first 30 games of the season.
In short: Few players in the country are as important to their team as Kendall Marshall is to North Carolina.
There are more talented players in college basketball. There are more talented players in UNC's lineup. But what player in the nation melds one specific skill -- in Marshall's case, brilliant all-court passing -- with his team's needs so thoroughly? In the past two seasons, what player has changed his program's fortunes so sweepingly?
It's important to remember, of course, that even if Marshall is out or limited, North Carolina is still very talented. Zeller, Henson, Barnes, James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock still form a formidable front line. The Tar Heels' Sweet 16 matchup -- which just so happens to be the No. 13-seeded Ohio Bobcats -- might afford them the rare opportunity to play without their point guard and still advance to the Elite Eight. (Plus, the injury's defensive impact is less dire: Marshall's perimeter defense [or lack thereof] has been his most consistent and glaring flaw, and there's a chance UNC might even improve with different combinations of guards at the point of defensive attack.)
Relative to the rest of the Midwest Region, the Tar Heels may still end up in the Final Four. There's no question it could happen.
Relative to the rest of the tournament field, though? Relative to Syracuse or Kansas? To Michigan State or Ohio State? Or -- and let's just get down to brass tacks here -- Kentucky? If Marshall is unable to play, or is at far less than 100 percent -- and we can't emphasize enough that nothing is yet official -- the Heels will not only be adjusting to a major psychic loss, they'll be losing their most invaluable player, the one who not only laces point-perfect passes but controls the tempo, initiates the offense and facilitates just about everything the Tar Heels do.
Can Justin Watts fill in? Can Stillman White? In the short term, maybe. In the context of this team's ultimate, almost expected goal, the answer is almost certainly no.
But there's no way of short-selling this, no contrarian position to take: If Marshall is out or limited, North Carolina's chances of winning the program's seventh national title in history -- the long-term trajectory of this team since Barnes, Zeller and Henson made the decision to stay in school -- become drastically slimmed.
Injuries don't get much more important or poorly timed than this.