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November 10, 2011Before Carolina can even begin the marathon journey of a basketball season, potentially the greatest hurdle facing the Tar Heels has already arisen: ill health.
In so many ways, sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall is expected to carry this team. Now, however, the question of whether his sore back can withstand the load is like a dark shadow trailing Carolina into Friday's season-opener against Michigan State.
The top-ranked Tar Heels and the Spartans will play on the deck of the USS Carl Viinson at 7 p.m. (ET). ESPN will broadcast the game.
"If we can stay healthy, we're going to be one of those teams that has a chance to win the whole thing," Coach Roy Williams said. "But the best team does not always win in college basketball.
"Last year four number-one seeds did not make the Final Four; four number two seeds did not make the Final Four; one three seed made the Final Four."
In the opening weeks of the 2010-11 season, the clear favorite to win the championship (a second consecutive title) was Duke, with the addition of point guard Kyrie Irving. That is how much a point guard can mean to a collegiate team.
His loss meant equally as much, only in a negative fashion. A toe injury forced Irving to the bench early and kept him there for the remainder of the regular season. The Blue Devils went from being an overwhelming force to just being another good team.
And so could be with this Carolina team. Marshall appears to be the one player the Tar Heels cannot afford to lose and still be the same dominating force.
When Williams benched Larry Drew last season and then Drew transferred, leaving Marshall as the starter, the Tar Heels immediately transformed into a national contender. They wound up finishing first in the ACC regular season, ahead of Duke, and made it to the round of eight in the NCAA Tournament. They lost a hard-fought game to Kentucky one game short of the Final Four.
If Marshall were sidelined by his back or some other injury, UNC would still have a point guard, but it just would not be the same.
"The backup point guard is Dexter [Strickland]," Williams said. "And he is really good defensively. When he gets the ball in the open court, there are not that many guys who can match that speed and quickness."
Strickland would do well after having two years to acclimate himself to playing point guard. He had always been a scorer prior to coming to Carolina, and he has needed the time to learn how to play the point at this level. But even at his best, he is not in Marshall's league as a point guard.
Of course, few are.
Marshall's unique skill in distributing the ball sets him apart. He's the best passer at UNC since Ed Cota's assists paved the way for three Final Four teams, and he's one of the best in the college game since Earvin "Magic" Johnson showed the nation what a great passer accomplish.
The two national championship point guards of the Williams era at Carolina -- Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson -- provided their value with tremendous speed and an outstanding ability to score.
But let's just suppose Marshall's back ache heals, and he is able to remain healthy and have the kind of season so many expect from him. What else must this team do or overcome to win the school's sixth NCAA title?
First of all, the Tar Heels need to rebound and run. Run the way Williams wants them to run - relentlessly, much the way the 2009 team ran to a national championship.
Another factor will be effort. This team should have learned a year ago that it is not enough to be talented. What separates the elite teams from everyone else is the combination of talent and effort. If the Tar Heels make sure no one plays harder than them, their superior talent should carry the day.
"I feel like if you have good practice habits, if you're consistent and going out there and playing hard every night, that is what we're focusing on," sophomore Harrison Barnes said.
Another factor is defense. This is one of the biggest teams in the country, and that means more than just the front line. Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston have long wingspans that add to the length of this team.
The combination of size, experience and athleticism can make this a devastating defensive club, if only the Tar Heels will add the critical mixture of desire.
"You're heard me say many times the best kind of team to have is experienced talent," Williams said. "That transfers more so to the defensive end of the floor because they are used to it. I think we'll be more demanding on the defensive end of the floor. We have a chance to be really good defensively."
The final ingredient to making this a championship team is sharing the ball. It's not that there are selfish players on this club because there aren't. But the urge to try to make plays one-on-one during times of stress is exactly what the Tar Heels must avoid.
If this team religiously makes the extra pass, given its wealth of talent, the Tar Heels will be virtually impossible to beat. Of course, that starts with the team's best passer and whether his back can withstand the strain of a season that runs from preseason practice in October to the tournament in March, and maybe even April.