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March 19, 2012
Don't Bury UNC Yet
Life Without Marshall

by John Gasaway

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The news that Kendall Marshall had broken a bone in his right wrist in North Carolina's 87-73 win over Creighton yesterday went out at 7:59 Eastern last night, and the magnitude of the event was so big there was no time to worry about correct spelling.

As you might expect, the reaction was instantaneous, loud, and close to unanimous. Losing Marshall would be "huge." Without him, the conventional wisdom holds that the Tar Heels' chances of winning a national championship are very slim. And by "conventional wisdom" I mean if anything it's North Carolina fans who are saying that this event effectively kills their team's hopes of cutting down the nets in New Orleans.

Is losing Marshall huge? Of course it is. Yesterday against the Bluejays the sophomore scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting while also dishing 11 assists. Unless you happen to have Draymond Green or Damian Lillard on your bench, you're probably not going to be able to replace a performer like that without seeing some drop off on offense.

True, the last time I wrote about the wrist injury of an indispensable North Carolina star, the young man in question, John Henson, ended up playing after all. But, while it's still early in this story and we've seen Willis Reed-brand surprises before, an injury to a point guard's off hand may well prove to be even more inconvenient than an injury to a big man's dominant hand. Marshall kept playing after he suffered the injury yesterday, and when he was asked after the game when his wrist hurt the most he replied, "Any time I tried to dribble with my right hand." At the risk of stating the obvious, a point guard needs to be able to engage in that particular activity.

So for our purposes here I'm simply going to assume Kendall Marshall is gone, period. Make that assumption, and it's a matter of just how huge Marshall's absence may prove to be. Here are my thoughts.

The question isn't UNC with Marshall vs. without, it's UNC without Marshall vs. Ohio, Kansas/NC State, etc.
There's never a good time to lose your starting point guard, but if it has to happen let it be once you are one of the last 16 teams standing and you're about to face an opponent who ranks No. 16 among that group of survivors. With all due respect to the Ohio Bobcats and their indisputably outstanding performance against heavies from the Big Ten (Michigan) and Big East (South Florida), John Groce's group rates out as the weakest of the remaining teams.

With Marshall out of the lineup, North Carolina will be giving more minutes to players like Stillman White and Justin Watts. As it happens Ohio is actually a good defensive team, and White and Watts will certainly have their work cut out for them. But the only thing tougher than being thrust into the lineup against a good defensive team in the Sweet 16 would be facing an outstanding defensive team in the regional semifinal. And this is where the Heels actually caught a break. By drawing Ohio instead of notoriously rugged South Florida, Carolina is at least more likely to have some wriggle room for error and adjustment on offense while they try to figure out life after Marshall.

Don't let the game Marshall had against Creighton sway you too much
Again, I don't want to minimize the impact of losing Marshall. Starting with UNC's first conference game against Boston College on January 7 and including yesterday's win against Creighton, Marshall personally played 1,293 possessions, meaning he was more or less always on the floor when a game was in doubt. Moreover he was taking on a larger share of the scoring load as the season progressed, averaging 15 points per outing over the last six games.

But the dramatic timing of Marshall's injury, which occurred during one of the finest all-around games of his career, shouldn't lead us to assume he -- or any other player -- would go out and uncork that kind of performance every time they took the floor if only they were healthy. Trust me on this one -- there's even a precedent to cite. Marshall's game yesterday was uncannily similar to the one he had against NC State in Raleigh on February 21. On that night the UNC point guard scored 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the floor while recording 13 assists. In his next two games, however, Marshall went a combined 1-of-11 from the floor with "just" 14 assists. Marshall is a superb point guard, but he's also susceptible to the same swings in performance as any other player.

North Carolina still has a fair amount of talent on offense
Roy Williams still has Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, and John Henson to send out on the floor. Freshman James Michael McAdoo has seemed to improve and develop by the minute in recent games. Reggie Bullock is a 38 percent three-point shooter. It's true someone needs to get those guys the ball, but it's also true that guys like that can make any reserve point guard's job much, much easier.

Offense is half the game
In ACC play this year North Carolina was as balanced as it is mathematically possible to be. Their offense was exactly as good, relative to the conference average, as their defense. If the Tar Heels were an elite team with an unusually heavy reliance on offense (think Duke or Missouri), losing an ignition switch like Marshall would be even more devastating. As it is UNC is in the Sweet 16 with a flock of McDonald's All-Americans and an excellent defense that won't be harmed one bit by the loss of their starting point guard.

We can all agree that North Carolina's odds of winning the national championship grew longer yesterday when Marshall fell on his right wrist. But the fact of the matter is the Tar Heels are still playing in the NCAA tournament. Even without their floor general they stand an unusually good chance of proceeding unscathed to the Elite Eight. Their odds of cutting down the nets in New Orleans are a function not only of how well one player performs on offense. Those chances are also a function of how well nine other players on the floor perform on both offense and defense. And looking at those match ups I still see a lot to like in Carolina. Don't bury this team just yet.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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