Kendall Marshall has had plenty of "Welcome to major college basketball" moments in a remarkable freshman season. The most recent came in the wake of North Carolina's run to the ACC tournament championship game.
"After playing in the ACC tournament, I have no idea how I was able to play three AAU games in one day," Marshall said. "That just shows you that it's a different level of competition. You're out here competing hard. I'm still learning how to play hard."
The learning curve has flattened a bit for him and fellow freshman Harrison Barnes, two of the Tar Heels' primary contributors in a turnaround season that resulted in an ACC regular season title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament's East Region.
"It takes a while for a lot of freshmen, the majority of freshmen, I should say, but both of those guys have been huge to our basketball team," coach Roy Williams said Saturday as Carolina (27-7) prepares for a second-round matchup against seventh-seeded Washington (24-10) on Sunday (12:15 p.m.) at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Barnes, the extraordinarily gifted 6-foot-8 forward, shook off a slow start to become the Tar Heels' leading scorer (15.3 ppg) and the runaway ACC Rookie of the Year. Marshall became the starting point guard after Larry Drew II's midseason departure and leads the ACC in assists (5.8 apg).
"Harrison was, in my opinion, born to score," Williams said. "When I recruited him, I said, 'We need you to score.' Kendall is the kind of guy that gets the ball to people where they can score. We needed both qualities, and they found a niche and have come in and really done well."
The Tar Heels rebounded from last year's sub-par season in which they missed the NCAA tournament to win the ACC regular-season title.
Barnes averaged 19.7 points in the past 15 games, up nearly eight points per game from the Tar Heels' first 19 games. Among his signature moments were the 40-point effort against Clemson in the ACC tournament semifinals, the first 40-point tournament game in 16 years, and a cold-blooded 3-pointer on a clear-out for him in the final seconds that won at Florida State.
"The biggest thing was make sure I always got back in the gym," Barnes said of his second-half surge. "Throughout the beginning of the season and the ACC season, I struggled with my shot and playing both ends of the floor, … just knowing which spots to be in.
"By constantly watching tape, getting back into the gym and listening to what my coaches were saying, that allowed me to get adjusted to the college level and I've been able to build off that."
Marshall handed out 16 assists — tied for second-most in an NCAA game this season — against the Seminoles in his first game after Drew left the team. He has had double-figure assists in four games since, including 10 in the Tar Heels' 102-87 first-round NCAA win against Long Island on Friday.
"I'm somewhat happy with my development," said the 6-3 Marshall, a prep All-American from Dumfries who played for Boo Williams' elite AAU travel squad. "I feel like I've come a long way. That's a big thing for my teammates and my coach, but I still feel like I have a long way to go.
"Defensively, I believe I can get a lot better. I can get a lot better attacking the basket, maybe finishing, as well as getting my teammates the ball. Keeping the defense honest. The main thing is making sure that my teammates and our team are getting great shots."
It seems unusual that a program such as Carolina, college basketball royalty, would rely so heavily on freshmen. But transfers and injuries — as well as incoming talent — left little choice. Six of the Heels' top eight scorers are freshmen and sophomores, counting freshman Reggie Bullock, sidelined with a late-season knee injury.
Even junior Tyler Zeller had limited experience after battling injuries the past two seasons, and senior Justin Knox is a grad student transfer from Alabama. That left a void into which the freshmen stepped.
"I'm not really surprised any more," Williams said. "Fifteen, 20 years ago it was really hard for a freshman, because they weren't nearly as … worldly as they are now. They've traveled so much, they've played so much. They've played against different competition — not just their high school teams. So I'm not as surprised by it."
The Tar Heels know they don't have all the answers. But a pair of marquee freshmen give them a chance, this season and perhaps beyond.
"We're a lot better than we were," Marshall said. "But two weeks ago, we were better than we are now. So we can't rest on that. We want to try to improve and make a deep run in the tournament."Copyright © 2015, CT Now