Within minutes, North Carolina’s locker room in Greensboro went from elation to absolute despondency. It was really something. All eyes were on Kendall Marshall, his wrist reddened from the ice. His eyes were redder.
There were no smiles, no jokes, and it seemed, no hope.
“It was a terrible bus ride back,” coach Roy Williams said. “It was as quiet as it could be.”
The top-seeded Tar Heels emerged from that locker room on Sunday with renewed vigor, even if some believe it doesn’t matter.
“Overnight we just got counted out of the race for the national championship,” UNC forward Harrison Barnes said. “People are telling us, you know, (like ESPN analyst) Doug Gottlieb, that we’re going to go back to Chapel Hill and not go to New Orleans. Nah, we’ll just keep going.”
Without Marshall, advancing will be difficult, and that’s what UNC is preparing for. Williams said 100 percent of his team’s preparation will be to play against Ohio without Marshall. The Tar Heels will likely be forced to change its in-game strategy without the second-team All-ACC point guard.
UNC forward Tyler Zeller said the Tar Heels, and maybe he most of all, will miss Marshall’s quick transition passes if the point guard can’t play.
But he thinks a short-handed UNC is still good enough to win.
“I just think you have to make sure you look at what we have instead of what we’re losing,” Zeller said.
He certainly has a point. Without Marshall, the Tar Heels’ starting lineup boasts three surefire first-round NBA draft picks and potentially three lottery picks — the first 14 picks made in the NBA draft.
And if the Tar Heels’ talented roster can’t pull the cart in the Sweet 16, they now have the benefit that most underdogs use: the need to make believers.
“It motivates us a lot,” forward John Henson said. “I guess you could say the pressure’s off us.”
When it comes to injuries, though, the Tar Heels are veterans.
UNC lost Dexter Strickland after his ACL-tear and Leslie McDonald before the season started. Both were big losses since McDonald, by all accounts, played great in the N.C. Pro-Am this summer. And Henson missed three games after he sprained his wrist in UNC’s first game of the ACC tournament.
“I think we do play well when the cards are stacked against us,” Barnes said. “We were kind of joking in the locker room that if everyone was healthy, there wouldn’t be enough minutes for everyone anyway.”
James Michael McAdoo would probably agree. It seemed to take Henson’s injury and his temporary starting role to get the freshman forward going.
“I think we’re a very talented team,” Zeller said. “I think it’s something where we still have the people that can score. We can defend. We can get out. I mean, we can make a lot of problems for people.”
And that’s what North Carolina will attempt to do Friday against Ohio. Williams said the loss of Marshall makes every other aspect of the game more important.
Without Marshall, he said, UNC’s defense must get better. Its rebounding must be relentless, and the Tar Heels need to hit shots.
But more than anything, Williams later added, UNC just needs to get the job done.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to pull together if we want to have a chance.”
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