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Why the North Carolina Tar Heels Will Win the National Championship

It's all about the point guard

Editor’s note: This is the first of a five-part college basketball series that will run this week. We will be bringing you five writers arguing why their team will win the national championship. Check back for Duke, Ohio State, Syracuse, and Kentucky.

On January 16 of this year, the North Carolina Tar Heels were 12-5, having just beaten Virginia Tech in a close game in Chapel Hill. The grumbling old men of Franklin Street were grumbling about what they had been grumbling about for the past two years: Larry Drew II, the team’s starting point guard, was playing horribly. In the Virginia Tech game, he had picked up more fouls (4) than assists (3), points (3), or rebounds (2). Kendall Marshall, Drew’s freshman backup, had played spectacularly. In 24 minutes, Marshall put up the following line: 3-4 from the field, 2 rebounds, 9 points, 9 assists, and zero turnovers. But statistics, even advanced ones, don’t really tell us much about point guard play in college. Yes, Marshall thoroughly outproduced Drew. But when you’re the point guard at Carolina, production is a secondary concern. You can shoot badly from the floor, turn the ball over, and have teammates botch assists, but as long as you’re pushing tempo and finding streaking and cutting teammates, you’re doing your job. Marshall set a torrid pace, but he did it in a strange, almost counterintuitive way. Carolina fans were still dizzied from the memories of Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson — two of the fastest players to ever set foot in Chapel Hill. But Felton and Lawson set pace through more traditional means — they got the ball and ran like jackrabbits up the court. Marshall, who runs with his back as straight as a ramrod and keeps his head up at all times, was much, much slower than those two. He was slower than Larry Drew II. But through long lead passes, clever dribbling, and the unteachable ability to see three beats ahead, Marshall set the Heels humming at their optimal pace.

Three days later the wheels finally came off what had already been a disappointing Tar Heels season. North Carolina lost by 20 to a Georgia Tech team that would finish the year with a 5-11 conference record. Drew did not score in that game. He was benched. Three weeks later he left the team in disgrace. Amid great fanfare from both the message boards and the old grumbling men, the Kendall Marshall era began.

May it live long and prosper.

When it comes to describing college point guards, the lexicon of basketball is almost never enough. Point guards are called quarterbacks or floor generals or spark plugs or the straw that stirs the drink, but for whatever reason, the sports media seems unwilling to call a point guard a point guard. For the North Carolina basketball team, the point guard is “the engine that runs Roy Williams’ supercharged machine.” Carolina basketball, as the metaphor goes, is a beautiful machine stocked with elegant, fast parts — the Bugatti of college basketball. And like all high-performance cars, the machine is fragile and bound to break down every once in a while.

If the Heels played a different style of basketball, in which the point guard’s duty was just to walk the ball up and pass off to one of the playmakers, Roy could get away with throwing an average point guard out there with the instructions: Just don’t turn the ball over. But because the Heels are all about Roy’s system, and because Roy’s system has never been anything but run, run, and when you’re tired, run some more, the player tasked with all that running becomes the focal point of the offense. To stretch the metaphor a bit further than it should probably stretch, the point guard at Carolina is both the driver and the engine.

It’s a system with one massive inherent risk: Point guards are notoriously difficult to scout and project — in 2008, Drew was the fourth-best point guard prospect in his high school class. The three players ahead of him — Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, and Kemba Walker — are all in the NBA. Drew, for his part, stunk for two years, and was stinking up his junior year before abruptly leaving the team in February. In the catastrophic 2009-10 season that saw the Heels go from national champions to the NIT, Drew shot 40 percent from the field and turned the ball over 3.2 times per game. (For what it’s worth, the NCAA leader in turnovers that season was John Wall.) It’s not fair to throw the steaming carcass of that season on Drew’s doorstep — the team had lost Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Hansbrough, and Danny Green to the NBA — but beyond the stats and the results, there was always a certain dynamism missing from Drew’s game. Again, this might have been acceptable in most other college basketball systems. Duke, for example, played without a real point guard for most of last year and for the entirety of its title run in 2009-10. That’s fine for a team built around defensive effort, long-range shooting, and size in the post. But if you run Roy Williams’ team, you better have some outstanding quality to your game.

And so, I would like to offer up the following statement: The point guard for North Carolina is the single most important position in college basketball. When Roy has a good one, the team wins national championships. When Roy has a bad one, the Heels are barely a tournament team.

This year, the Heels have one hell of a point guard in Kendall Marshall. He will probably never be the offensive force that Ty Lawson was, and there is a chance he’ll leave Chapel Hill without a championship. But in 20 years, when we look back at Ol’ Roy’s era in Chapel Hill, Marshall will be the one we remember the most fondly.1 At heart, Carolina fans are basketball purists, and nothing on Tobacco Road reads as purely as the pass-first point guard.

It’s worth asking: Why run a system so dependent on one position? Why not create something a bit more malleable, so that when you miss on a point guard prospect or can’t recruit one, you don’t doom yourself to mediocrity? Duke’s continued success comes from the fact that Coach K can teach anyone to play manic defense and move the ball. Unless he completely whiffs on a recruiting class, like he did in the Greg Paulus/Josh McRoberts era, Duke will have seven to nine guys who can grow into their roles. Disasters like Brian Zoubek, through years of coaching, can turn into serviceable players by their junior and senior years. Tom Izzo runs a similar system at Michigan State. At Kentucky, John Calipari has mastered the art of building a team around two or three freshman superstars. And as long as his players keep going in the lottery, there’s no reason to suspect that the parade of five-star prospects will ever stop their steady matriculation march into Lexington.

The 2004-05 Tar Heels finished the season with a 14-2 conference record, went 33-4 overall, and stormed through the NCAA tournament. That team had four players picked in the first round of the 2005 draft: Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean May. Both David Noel and Jawad Williams would ultimately find their way into the league. May and McCants are no longer in the league. Marvin seems happy to be a role player on a slightly-above-average team. If the NBA ever comes back, Jawad will be the Carolina guy most often spotted at the end of benches, and will lead the league in, “Hey, what the hell? Jawad Williams is on the _______?” Only Felton has created a decent NBA career for himself.

The 2008-09 Tar Heels were one of the best teams in the history of college basketball. Their average margin of victory in the tournament was over 20 points per game. Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, and Ty Lawson2 went in the first round of the 2009 draft. Danny Green scratched his way into the league and found playing time. Ed Davis went in the lottery a year later. It’s too early to predict how their careers will pan out, but right now the overwhelming evidence points to Hansbrough being a good player on a perennially bad team and Ellington washing out after his rookie contract is up. Lawson, on the other hand, is one of the NBA’s most dynamic young point guards. If he stays in Denver, he should average somewhere around 15 points and seven assists per game while running George Karl’s offense. It’s hard to see him ever playing in an All-Star Game, but if Denver builds its team correctly, he could have a better career than, say, Mike Bibby. Which, despite Bibby’s precipitous decline, is pretty damn good.

I bring this up because the 2011-12 Tar Heels are built a whole lot like the past two championship teams. They have a point guard who can run Roy’s system (Marshall, Lawson, Felton). They have a sweet-shooting wing with a knack for knocking down big shots (Harrison Barnes, Ellington, McCants). They have a five-star freshman forward who can concentrate his effort on the defensive side of the floor (James McAdoo, Ed Davis, Marvin Williams). They have a low-post player who can take over games (Tyler Zeller, Hansbrough, May). They have an athletic two guard who can bear down on defense and help push the tempo (Jackie Manuel, Ginyard/Green, Dexter Strickland). And it’s probable that all these assets would fall apart without their point guard, and, in some way, that none of these players would be as shiny and draft-worthy if they had not played in a well-tuned Roy Williams system. May got good when he started running the floor with Felton. McCants never developed the ability to create his own shot, and needed Felton to drive and dish. Hansbrough toughed his way through one season without Lawson, but once he had someone to pass him the ball in the post, he developed a midrange and a running game. Last year, Zeller and Barnes became elite scorers after Marshall took over at the point guard position. Leslie McDonald, who will miss most of the 2011-12 season with an ACL injury, went from being a talented yet seemingly out-of-place role player to becoming the team’s best bench scorer.

When this system is firing on all cylinders, the Heels are unbeatable. Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky, and the rest of the NCAA can recruit whomever they want, but a well-run Carolina team dictates the game’s pace to such a degree that the other team might as well not be playing. And this year’s squad might be more talented than either of the past two championship teams. It boasts eight McDonald’s All-Americans, five players who should eventually be first-round picks (Barnes, McAdoo, Marshall, Zeller, and John Henson), and depth at nearly every position. If Barnes goes down with an injury, Reggie Bullock, a highly touted shooting guard who missed much of his freshman year with an injury, can make up for at least some of the lost production.3 If John Henson, one of the most bizarre athletes to step on a basketball court (I can’t tell if he’s going to be Lamar Odom or Nick Fazekas), gets hurt, McAdoo can step in and take his minutes. Strickland will be pushed by Bullock, and, hopefully, McDonald. There is a surplus of talent in Chapel Hill. Almost all of it — save Marshall — is interchangeable.

As such, the same fragility that plagues the Roy Williams system could be what ultimately derails these Tar Heels. Kendall Marshall’s backup this year is a little-known, barely recruited freshman named Stilman White, who plans to stay one year in Chapel Hill before departing on his two-year Mormon mission.

So, my Carolina brethren, please join me in the following prayer for Kendall Marshall. Please, please, please let him be healthy. If he plays 35 games, the Heels will be cutting down the nets in March. If he plays 15, expect two losses to Duke, a quick out in the ACC tournament, and nothing past the second round of the NCAA.

There is very little middle ground here. But isn’t that why we love Ol’ Roy?

Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in Summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @jaycaspiankang.

Previously from Jay Caspian Kang:
Why the NFL Needs Tim Tebow
Red Sox Nation: F@#$ These Guys
We Need a Renegade Basketball League
Mayweather-Ortiz: What the Sucker Punch Just Happened?
The Circular Ruins: Remembering Amy Winehouse
Immigrants and the importance of Ichiro

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