Tar Heels thrive when chips are down

Originally Published: March 21, 2012
By Robbi Pickeral | ESPN.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- On the bus ride home Sunday, they were depressed.

By practice Tuesday, they were determined.

"We do play well when the cards are stacked against us," North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes said.

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Bob Donnan/US PresswireRoy Williams' Tar Heels have handled adversity well the past two seasons.

And that's exactly where the top-seeded Tar Heels find themselves after starting point guard Kendall Marshall underwent surgery Monday to insert a screw into his fractured right wrist. They're rallying around their adversity.

Again.

The past two seasons, UNC has found a way to persevere through double-digit deficits, defecting players and lopsided losses -- fighting its way back from a humbling trip to the postseason NIT in 2010 and into NCAA title contention again this season.

Coach Roy Williams acknowledged that possibly losing Marshall (or having him on a limited basis) for the rest of the NCAA tournament is "a heavier dose" of disadvantage than this team had faced.

But how UNC responds might get to the crux of the biggest question surrounding this squad: Just how tough are these Tar Heels?

To understand what Marshall means to this team, and how much it has rallied from, you have to go back 13 months to February 2011, when junior point guard Larry Drew II -- who had been replaced by Marshall in the starting lineup for the previous four games -- packed up and moved back to the West Coast in the middle of the ACC season. Drew II didn't even tell his roommate, guard Justin Watts, that he was leaving. His dad was the one who called Williams.

UNC, stunned in the days following, teetered on a precipice. Would it bond, or become unhinged? The previous summer, twin forwards David and Travis Wear also had suddenly opted to transfer without telling anyone. Just before fall practice, senior leader Will Graves was suspended for the season.

And, when Drew abandoned ship, the Tar Heels were still only four games removed from an effort-less 20-point loss at Georgia Tech, a performance that raised doubts about whether they were really any different from the squad that had failed to make the NCAA tournament (for the first time in the Williams era) the previous spring.

"That was really an important time for us," Williams said last season. "Not just how Kendall responded to taking over but how the team responded to him."

As the only natural point guard left on the roster, Marshall's passing and endurance were key. But more so was his poise under pressure.

Team insiders shook their heads in wonder at how easily the older players trusted a freshman at the helm, how quickly he glued them into a cohesive unit. The players credited his humble-but-humorous personality, his willingness to spread around his pinpoint passes. And Marshall's career-high 16-assist performance against Florida State -- the game after Drew defected -- set the rallying tone for the rest of the season.

As in: Take that, disbelievers.

"There is something unique about Kendall Marshall," said Williams, whose team won 17 of 20 games with Marshall in the starting lineup in 2010-11, making a surprising run to the NCAA regional finals. "The way he plays, the way he tries to get everybody involved, the way he tries to make everybody look good, the way he tries to make his team win. I've had some really good point guards, but he is the most unique one I've ever had in many different directions."

Marshall's teammates see it, too: the natural vision, the ability to push the ball to just the right place, the willingness to pass on scoring and make his teammates look better.

After Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Barnes all opted to forgo the NBA draft to return to Chapel Hill this season, the Tar Heels were lauded as the instant favorites to win it all. The trio gave them experience, defense and scoring. But even they acknowledged that Marshall would be the glue guy.

"He's the one that makes this team go," 7-foot Zeller has said on more than one occasion.

But where they were going became the question pretty quickly.

UNC, despite featuring the same starting lineup as the season before, fell out of the top spot in the polls in late November after a surprising defeat to UNLV in Las Vegas in which the Tar Heels appeared to panic in the second half. In December, they lost at Kentucky by a point on a late-game block.

Then many lost faith in the Tar Heels' national title chances in mid-January after they were blown out at Florida State by 33 points. It was embarrassing. It was humbling. It marked the most lopsided loss in the Williams era, and folks started questioning the Tar Heels' heart, fortitude and focus.

"For us, it was a wake-up call, that it wasn't going to be easy just because everyone had come back, and because of what we had done last season," Barnes said.

Maybe, some of his teammates acknowledged, they needed that shakeup -- a slap in the face (and kick in the pants) to push them to reach their potential.

What they didn't need was another blow. They got it, though, when starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland, the team's best perimeter defender and Marshall's backup at point guard, tore an ACL in the next game and was lost for the season.

But the Tar Heels survived that, too, by getting more minutes from Marshall and moving Reggie Bullock into the starting lineup.

With "33" -- a reminder of that loss in Tallahassee -- written on a board in the locker room, they rallied again, this time by winning 16 of their next 18 games (one loss came on a game-winning 3 by Duke's Austin Rivers, the other by three to FSU in the ACC title game). Marshall became the ACC's all-time assists leader in the process, and his team even went 2-1 without Henson (out for three postseason games because of a sprained left wrist).

It was as if they said, "Another test? Bring it on."

"They've been able to handle it," Williams said of the different brands of adversity his team has faced the past two seasons. "They've never one time rolled over and played dead. And, with each thing that happened, we said, 'This is what happened; let's do our best to understand it, and let's move on.' And they were willing to move on every day."

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Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesKendall Marshall has been the glue that's held the Tar Heels together.

That was the case Tuesday, the day after Williams gave his team a day off to rest/stew/rant/regroup as Marshall had his surgery.

After the strangely quiet ride home from the NCAA opening rounds in Greensboro, the mood had turned familiar: resilience mixed with belief and determination, meshed with a little defiance.

"We didn't come all this way to lay down, first of all," Henson said. "So, even if we don't have Kendall, we're not going to feel bad for us. …

"We've seen it all here the last couple of years -- whether it was transfers, guys leaving the team, injuries. We have seen a lot, and it's another bump in the road."

If Marshall can't play, UNC's problems will be a whole lot more jarring than a bump, but the Heels are trying to prepare as best they can. With Strickland out and Marshall questionable, freshman Stilman White (4.3 minutes a game) and Watts (a senior wing who has played two stints at point guard this season) are the Tar Heels' best ballhandling options. Williams said the team would be working them hard in anticipation of Friday's game against No. 13 seed Ohio -- hoping that Marshall might play but prepping for the likelihood that he won't.

With or without their starting point guard, though, coach and players believe they'll find a way to keep winning.

"You know what I've got?" Williams said. "I've got a bunch of kids that have handled adversity. … And they've bounced back.

"My team's pretty dadgum special with their toughness."

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.