Forgive the headline, as I had to do whatever I could to avoid the low-hanging fruit of titling this post “Larry Who?” And indeed, for someone who was no longer on the team, much of the talk leading up to and even during Carolina’s matchup with Florida State centered around a former backup point guard who had skipped town during the night, leaving his teammates to find out he was gone through Facebook and Twitter. There was, understandably, a bit of apprehension coming into UNC’s matchup with the Noles - FSU had one of the best defenses in the nation, Carolina had lost a player who contributed 9 assists in their last win, and we were unsure whether the distractions of losing a teammate might disrupt the flow of the Tar Heels’ suddenly-productive offense.
So, with all of that in mind, my goodness that was an impressive win.
Leading practically from the opening tip, the Heels put up the most points FSU has had against them this year, showing off a nice inside-outside mix of balanced scoring, put to bed any worries about the Drew situation emotionally distracting the team, and are now seemingly playing their best basketball just before a matchup with their hated arch-rival. That’s not even mentioning the fact that this team should continue to be applauded for the therapeutic work they’re doing to erase the scars of last year’s performance - I know there’s a certain amount of pessimism within any fan base, but it’s fairly telling that when the Drew news broke, most Tar Heel fans seemed to already be fearing the worst from their upcoming stretch of games. As much as it makes perfect sense, it’s almost difficult for us as fans to accept that, yes, this young team is actually playing better basketball as the season progresses! The Georgia Tech loss seems like an aberration at this point, rather than the harbinger of doom we all feared it could have been.
And Kendall Marshall. We cannot find enough words to praise Kendall Marshall enough - fortunately his stat line speaks volumes: 9 points, 16 assists (most ever by a UNC freshman, and 1 more than FSU had as a team!), 3 steals and 3 turnovers in 36 minutes of action. As much as we could nitpick a little asking Roy to play the freshman a little less when necessary (save some of it for the postseason, please), I can understand wanting to leave him on the court when a performance like that is happening. Marshall’s fantastic court vision was on full display, dishing on the break, throwing no-look passes over his head, drawing Seminole big men into the air on the drive before distributing for easy layups - it was a clinic. UNC’s strong backcourt play from the start of the game allowed Carolina to take an approach they rarely implement, namely opening things up in the post with their hot shooting from the perimeter. Dexter Strickland had his best offensive game of the season, and Harrison Barnes continued to impress with an aggressiveness and general acumen he didn’t quite have to start the season.
So, to quote the double rainbow guy: “What does it mean?” This game continues to show us that this Tar Heel team is incredibly resilient, both in individual games and in the broader context of a season. They have fought off double-digit deficits, media criticism, and having a teammate quit on them to emerge stronger each time. Meanwhile, Duke will be facing their first opponent since November that’s a lock to make the tournament (and yes it’s not their fault KSU and Michigan State have fallen apart, but still worth noting). The Blue Devils are still the stronger team in the rankings and on paper, but UNC is now playing its best basketball. So hate week kicks off with both teams having something to prove and fight for - the looming matchup has gotten more and more intriguing by the week. Bring on DUKE!!!!