Published Tue, Mar 20, 2012 7:00 pm Dateline
As you probably already know, Ohio's Sweet 16 opponent will most likely be without the services of its point guard, after Kendall Marshall broke his wrist during North Carolina's third-round victory over Creighton. Reports out of Chapel Hill are that the team is preparing "100 percent" to play without its point guard.
Now, to the untrained eye of the casual college basketball fan - or to even the cynical Bobcat fans who believe this magical run is one game from being over - after all this is North Carolina we're talking about - the thought is this:
"Surely the No. 1 seed Tar Heels will be just fine without its eight point-per-game-guard against 13-seed Ohio. Sure his 10 assists per game will be hard to replace, but the sheer NBA talent the team can flex from the other four spots on the floor, will give Ohio serious trouble stopping its high-flying offense regardless of who is playing the point."
And yes, while parts of that are true, the casual college basketball fan probably doesn't know just how important Kendall Marshall really is. Especially lately. Check out these numbers:
- Marshall accounted for over 55 percent of the Tar Heel offense, whether it be scoring or assisting, in their second round win over Creighton.
- He's created an average of 32.3 points per game (22.5 from assists) in six tournament games.
- Marshall has recorded double-doubles in five of last six games (nine assists in the other game).
- His 351 assists this season set a new record in the ACC, shattering Craig Neal's mark of 303 in 1987-88 with Georgia Tech.
- Lastly, he created an assist on 44.5 percent of his possessions, the third-highest mark in the country.
Yeah, those numbers are ridiculous.
They paint a picture of how important Marshall is to the fast-paced Tar Heel attack, where every up-tempo possession requires a guard with all-court vision and above-average passing skills. Two intangibles that are not attributed to freshman Stillman White, the unproven freshman guard who will replace Marshall if indeed he's out. But they are intangibles undoubtedly possessed by Ohio's Dj Cooper.
Now, quick question, what do coaches and pundits across the country label the most important position on the floor, especially come tournament time?
If you said point guard, pat yourself on the back - you're exactly right. With that said, where does Ohio suddenly have the unquestioned advantage in their matchup with top seeded North Carolina?
Ohio's Cooper has been on an amazing run since the regular season concluded and do-or-die time began, averaging 19.8 points per game, 6.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and an assist-to-turnover-ratio better than 2:1. He was called "tremendous" and "as good a guard as we've played all year" by Michigan coach Jon Beilein after he scored 23 points in Ohio's 65-60 win over the Wolverines. He had South Florida coach Stan Heath amazed at how many open looks he created for his teammates when Heath hadn't seen an opponent shoot an open look over his team's rugged defense in two months.
He's pretty good.
Now you pit Cooper against White, who's played just five minutes per game - mostly in mop-up duty - and is there any doubt the Bobcats have a serious edge in the backcourt?
Now, I'm not blind to the fact every other position on the floor is advantage-UNC. Six-foot-3 Nick Kellogg will be challenged against fellow two-guard, 6-foot-7 Reggie Bullock.
Walter Offutt will have to play his best defensive game of the season (and thats saying something) to slow down future NBA lottery pick, Harrison Barnes. Ivo Baltic and Jon Smith will be in similar situations against the bigger, more talented Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
But, in order for those guys to be, on the court, the very matchup problem they are on paper, they need a point guard who can put them in positions to do the damage of which they're more than capable. You better believe coach John Groce understands, if you stop the point, you can stop their team - "a cutting the head off the snake" mentality toward slowing down the UNC offense. With Ohio second in the nation in steals per game at over nine a contest, expect the Bobcats to be extra aggressive on White.
Sure, Ohio will still be big underdogs in its matchup with North Carolina. But crazier things have happened in this tournament and Ohio may have received the kind of break a 'David' needs when beating 'Goliath" with the injury to Marshall.
Those on the national scene are certainly aware.
"Assuming Carolina can beat Ohio even without Marshall would be a mistake," ESPN.com's Andy Katz wrote.
Said Katz's ESPN colleague, Doug Gottlieb on SportsCenter Tuesday morning, "Without Marshall, Carolina will be lucky to get past Ohio."
It may be just one spot on the floor that Ohio has the edge, but clearly, its a big one.