On Feb. 20, Marshall was averaging 6.6 points on 42.5 percent shooting (27.5 from 3-point territory) through 27 games. The Tar Heels traveled to N.C. State the following evening and Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried decided to employ an aggressive defensive approach designed to collapse on UNC’s bigs and force the perimeter players, Marshall included, to win the game.
It was a solid, well-thought-out strategy that backfired. Marshall, with only three double-digit scoring games on the season, posted 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting (4-of-5 on 3s) to go along with his 13 assists.
The Cousy Award frontrunner deflected postgame praise to his teammates, as usual, and told reporters that he was just happy to get his team a win. If you play the game long enough, you’re bound to have a career night. Just ask Florida State’s Deividas Dulkys about his 32-point performance against North Carolina in January.
So most observers attached that label to Marshall’s performance against the Wolfpack and moved on. Four combined points in his next two outings seemed to confirm that belief, but the Dumfries, Va. native has forced everyone to revisit that thought ever since then.
Over his last eight games, Marshall is averaging 12.1 points on 50.7 percent shooting (36-of-71), including a 50.0 percent mark (13-of-26) from long range. He had three games with five field goals or more in the first 27 games of the season, but has accomplished that feat six times in his last eight, including five straight.
While Marshall knocked down open looks from behind the arc against N.C. State and during the ACC Tournament, he focused his offensive effort on penetrating the lane against Vermont on Friday.
“I’m just trying to take what the defense is giving me,” Marshall said after the game. “Early on, they were really getting after ‘H’ and ‘Z’. It was a little hard to feed them, so I just wanted to try to attack the gaps and make it easy for my teammates.”
His offensive production of late has come as a needed addition with shooting woes plaguing the Tar Heels. UNC has shot below 42.0 percent from the floor in six of its last 11 games and below 31 percent from 3-point range in five of its last seven contests.
“It’s a little bit of a surprise, but also a relief to us because last summer we saw what he’s capable of in scoring,” Tyler Zeller said on Saturday. “He did a fantastic job then just hitting open shots and creating. The way [opponents] are playing us now – they like to hug the bigs – so it makes it easy for him to be able to finish inside and he’s also hitting shots outside.”
According to Marshall, the only difference in the present versus five weeks ago is his mindset.
“I’d say the thing that has changed is that my confidence level is higher, because some of those shots are falling,” Marshall said. “I felt like I put in a lot of work over the summer and shots just weren’t falling earlier in the year and it got to me a little bit.
“But lately, I’ve just been saying, ‘Hey, my shooting percentage can’t go any lower, so might as well just let it fly.’ It’s paid off. I feel like I’m shooting the ball well and hopefully it’s just another way to help my team out.”
There was never an “aha” moment for Marshall in practice prior to his offensive explosion at N.C. State or even in the following days or weeks.
“I’ve always shot the ball well in practice – that’s the weird part,” Marshall said. “The conclusion that I’ve come to is that I just don’t shoot well in the Dean Dome. I’m happy that I’m finally away from there.”
All kidding aside, there is some statistical evidence to back up that conclusion, albeit skewed by his play over the last five games. In 18 home games, Marshall averaged 5.9 points on 44.0 percent shooting, including a 26.9 mark from long range. In 17 games away from the Smith Center, the sophomore has averaged 9.9 points on 45.9 percent shooting, including a 39.2 percentage from the 3-point line.
What matters, of course, is that his scoring ability has appeared at just the right time. Harrison Barnes provided some insight into the benefits that Marshall’s scoring has brought to the offense.
“Guys aren’t going to necessarily sag off him as much, play him completely in the paint,” Barnes said. “Guys have to respect his jump shot and play him honest. It allows for more driving opportunities.”
Barnes noted that Marshall’s increased production creates a quandary for opponents when he and Zeller are positioned on the same side of the court. Earlier in the season, a defender may have quickly left Marshall to double-team Barnes or Zeller, but that’s no longer a simple decision.
With the nation’s No. 1 ranked team in field goal percentage (50.7) up next on Sunday, the Tar Heels will need both facets of Marshall’s game to dissect Creighton’s 2-3 zone.
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