His ability to push the ball off the court gives the team its on-court identity, and his leadership, good judgment, and overall positive energy has helped shape its off-court identity, from the brilliant flash mob pickup games on campus last spring to unfailingly generous and classy tweets.
Marshall is a major reason why this Tar Heel team is often described as highly likeable, and why it’s appreciated by connoisseurs of fast-paced but intelligently played basketball.
Now Marshall’s aspirations for playing in a Final Four, as well as those of his teammates, if not quite extinguished, are in serious doubt following his fractured wrist in the win over Creighton Sunday in Greensboro.
I was a firsthand witness courtside in 1984 when Kenny Smith broke his wrist after a flagrant foul by John Tudor of LSU, and again from high in the stands in 1994 when Derrick Phelps was knocked out by Donya Abrams in the NCAA Tournament loss to Boston College.
In both those incidents, the severity of the injury was immediate and obvious, with the game having to be delayed. After Marshall took a hard foul from Ethan Wragge in the second half Sunday, he got up and walked away, causing observers immediate, but as it turn out misplaced, relief. By the end of the game Marshall was virtually playing with one hand, in obvious pain.
The most likely scenario is that Marshall cannot play this weekend. Even in the unlikely event he is cleared to play, it seems doubtful he will be as effective as normal. Consequently, North Carolina’s realistic prospects for advancing beyond St. Louis, let alone winning a national title, appear dim.
Ironically, a team that has played under sky-high expectations all year now finds itself with almost no expectations. To state the obvious, Marshall can’t be replaced by anyone on the current roster. Stilman White and Justin Watts are capable, at least against normal pressure, of handling the ball well and getting Carolina into an offense, and that counts for something. But neither one is going to put anything like the pressure Marshall puts on defense with his aggressive passing and (of late) his scoring ability.
If White and Watts do simply make the basic plays, avoid turning the ball over, and defend their position, then Carolina will probably stand a reasonable chance against No. 13 seed Ohio. Other players, particularly Harrison Barnes, will need to step up in terms of playmaking and overall production, and outside shots will need to fall at some point, but Carolina should enter Friday’s game believing it can find a way, at least for one game, to get it done without its point guard maestro.
Beyond that—against Kansas or N.C. State in a possible regional final—it would likely be a different and less happy story for a Marshall-less Heels. The only positive thing one could say about either matchup is that at least the pressure will be off.
External pressure, that is. Many Carolina fans are conditioned to watch the games with the eye of the critical perfectionist, particularly when there is a highly talented team of whom much can be expected. The Tar Heels have been that team all season long. Now, suddenly, they are not that team, but instead a group of young men struggling against long odds to keep their individual and collective dreams alive after having been dealt a terrible hand. Given the circumstances, most reasonable outside observers will drop the perfectionism and just try to appreciate the effort and heart the Heels display next weekend, whatever the result.
That’s a healthy approach for fans. But for the participants themselves, the self-imposed pressure will still be there, and the motivation to somehow reach a Final Four despite the circumstances will be undiminished. The only way to achieve that goal is in for the rest of the starting five to pick up their play.
Roy Williams understandably took the news of Marshall’s injury hard. He instantly understood that the injury jeopardized not only Marshall’s dreams, but that of Barnes to play in a New Orleans Final Four thirty years after Michael Jordan, that of senior Tyler Zeller to collect a second national title ring, and many other individual dreams as well.
But Williams is much too competitive to spend the coming week of practice encouraging the remaining Tar Heels to feel sorry for themselves. That’s not going to happen. Instead, Williams is going to teach his proverbial rear end off this week in practice to get the team appropriately focused, and he’s going to think carefully about strategies that might give Carolina the best chance to win, taking it one game at a time.
Whatever five players take the court wearing Carolina blue this Friday and possibly Sunday will give it their best shot. How this team reacts to its new role as undermanned underdog should make for stirring viewing, no matter the ultimate outcome.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.