Kendall Marshall has been given several opportunities to admit that he is only a 19-year-old freshman that is not quite ready for the heavy burden of returning North Carolina to the nation's elite, but each time he has refused.
Two days after Drew bolted Chapel Hill with not so much as a tweet or Facebook wall post to his teammates, Marshall took the floor against the ACC's top defensive team in Florida State and dished out 16 assists – the most ever by a Tar Heel in 948 all-time ACC games.
Three days later, Marshall refused to wilt under the Cameron Crazies' pressure in his first game at Duke, posting a solid 6:1 assist-turnover ratio.
And after North Carolina grinded out a 64-62 win at Clemson on Feb. 12, the Dumfries, Va. native was asked by a reporter what it meant for the Tar Heels to have won three games in the season's toughest four-game stretch. Marshall quickly responded, "It means that we lost a game."
With Marshall in the starting lineup, North Carolina has posted an 8-1 record with a 10.2 average margin of victory. UNC failed to eclipse the 80-point mark in 19 ACC games started by Drew dating back to last season, but the Tar Heels have scored 84 or more points in three of the nine ACC games since Marshall earned the starting nod against Clemson on Jan. 18.
In the nine ACC games that Marshall has started, North Carolina is shooting 45.6 percent from the floor. In the first three conference games of the season, UNC connected on just 35.4 percent of its field goal attempts.
And while the Tar Heels have struggled shooting the ball in recent games, head coach Roy Williams indicated that his team only took two bad shots against Wake Forest last week and then told reporters on Tuesday that his staff didn't even count the poor shots against Boston College because they felt comfortable about the quality of attempts. In other words, Marshall is running the offense efficiently, it's just a matter of the ball going in the basket.
For Marshall, thriving under pressure has been his only option.
"I really haven't had a choice – I've had to grow up fast," Marshall said on Williams's radio show on Monday night. "I'm just trying to learn the system and trying to do everything that Coach wants me to do. I think I've handled it pretty good. It could be a lot better."
Williams responded by ladling praise on his rookie point guard.
"He understands the game maybe as well as anybody I've ever coached at the point guard spot," Williams said. "…He knows to get the ball to the right people. The best thing is that I don't think Kendall will be a guy that makes the same mistake over and over. I think he'll learn from mistakes."
While the team flourishing is Marshall's primary concern, his individual statistics have been equally as impressive. He has posted a 2.86 assist-turnover ratio (103-36) over his last 17 games and a 2.28 ratio (57-25) since becoming a starter.
The 6-foot-3, 186-pounder currently leads the ACC in assists (6.2) and assist-turnover ratio (2.6) in league play. His A/T ratio in ACC play currently equals Ty Lawson's statistical showing in '08-09 as the best mark by a Tar Heel point guard in the Williams era.
According to DraftExpress.com, Marshall's 10.4 assists per 40 minutes would be the highest average in NCAA basketball over the past decade.
Marshall attributes his individual growth to the growing chemistry and familiarity with his teammates.
"Obviously, you're going to be more comfortable with your teammates the longer that you're on the court with them," Marshall said. "Since my minutes went up, I know their tendencies and where Harrison [Barnes] and John [Henson] and [Tyler] Zeller like to catch the ball to be successful."
Oddly enough, it was Drew's decision to return home to California to work on his game last summer that ignited the chemistry between Marshall and his passing targets. Zeller told reporters on Tuesday that the rookie was forced into serious minutes during the renowned Chapel Hill pick-up games during summer school, and it quickly became apparent to everyone on the roster that Marshall was the real deal.
"He just manages the game very well," Zeller said. "He finds a way to create opportunities for shooters and for big men. He makes all of our jobs a lot easier. As a point guard, you have to be able to get people into place. He's pretty much the coach on the court."
If there's an area for concern, it's in Marshall's increased playing time. In the first 17 games of the season, he averaged 15.8 minutes per outing and surpassed 19 minutes just twice. Since Drew's departure, Marshall has played at least 35 minutes in four of his last five games. No other UNC freshman point guard under Williams has logged even one game of 35 minutes or more in regulation.
Part of Marshall's learning curve is in understanding how to balance playing hard every single play with maximizing his rest and sustaining his stamina. He also has to improve his offensive arsenal beyond his adept passing abilities, but it's almost important to note that his rapid progression has masked the fact that he has only been a college student for less than six months.
"This was a very difficult situation for him, coming in and then all of a sudden with Larry leaving and the turmoil," Williams said. "The kids really banded together and Kendall has done a fantastic job. And Kendall's going to get a lot better, too. He's going to work on his body and the whole thing in the offseason, he's going to be bigger and stronger and quicker.
"But from the shoulders up, Kendall's doing as good a job as I have ever had any freshman in 23 years as a head coach do. It's been phenomenal. I expect him to continue doing it. It's not that I want him to do it, I expect him to do it."
That's quite the challenge coming from a Hall-of-Fame head coach, but Marshall has already shown a knack for checking items off his Tar Heel point guard list in a swift manner.