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February 4, 2011

Drew Dashes, Marshall Takes Control

CHAPEL HILL - Kendall Marshall heard the news via Facebook. Carolina's freshman point guard woke up Friday morning in rain-soaked Chapel Hill, flipped open his laptop, logged onto his Facebook page, and wham.

Junior Larry Drew had decided to leave the Carolina basketball program, and the news hit Marshall in the face like a stiff winter wind.

He was upset.

No phone calls. No text messages. Just a brief story that a friend forwarded to him on Facebook.

The disappointment that Drew would bail on his teammates during the middle of the season - with their toughest ACC stretch arriving soon, no less - would come later.

"If it was up to me, I would have liked him to wait until the end of the season," Marshall said sitting in a chair inside a dimmed Smith Center before practice. "But Larry is a grown man, and he makes his own choices."

The remaining Tar Heels have their own choice to make going forward, and Marshall immediately made it clear what that choice would be.

When asked if he would try to reach out and speak to Drew, Marshall didn't hesitate to shake his head no.

"That's not one of my main concerns," he said. "My main concern is on the people we have in the locker room."

Marshall was already scheduled to appear at Friday afternoon's press conference before the news of Drew's departure broke.

When the news leaked, the team also scheduled Tyler Zeller for the presser in hopes of deflecting some of the media storm away from Marshall and onto an experienced voice in Zeller. As reporters flocked around Marshall, Zeller sung largely the same tune.

"It's disturbing because it's in the middle of the season," Zeller said. "I may text him or something, but I don't think I'm going to do anything to convince him to come back."

Apparently, head coach Roy Williams didn't even have the option of convincing Drew to remain with the team.

Williams arrived at work in the morning to an urgent message that said he needed to call Drew's father.

Shortly after 9 a.m., Williams dialed the number of the Atlanta Hawks head coach, who told Williams that his son had decided to leave Chapel Hill and Carolina basketball in his review mirror.

"I called 'Big Larry', and he informed me that Larry was leaving," Williams said. "We had a long discussion, but there was no arbitrating, no trying to see if we could rectify anything. That was the decision that was made."

Williams didn't say he wanted to convince Drew to come back, either. Drew didn't want to be a Tar Heel, and that was that.

Even so, the mood around the team wasn't spiteful. Nothing close to that. Williams praised Drew for his efforts and clearly defined Drew's impact in recent games.

"This is a major blow, there's no question about that," Williams said.

"I'm not going to lie to myself and say it doesn't hurt," Marshall added.

Marshall went on to say Larry is a "good kid," and that he wishes him well with his future team.

Zeller said the rest of the team wasn't mad at Drew for making the decision that he did.

But, clearly, the line had been drawn. It's those in the locker room against everybody else. And beginning today, Larry Drew is everybody else. There's no other way to put it.

Drew's departure does hurt Carolina on paper. That's obvious. Marshall will automatically be called on to fill a bigger role and play more minutes.

"I've been telling my teammates to have oxygen and water by the bench," he joked.

Dexter Strickland will likely return to the back-up point guard role that he occupied last season, Williams said.

The bench will be stretched to its limits in the coming weeks, and the coach knows this will be a challenge.

He says in time he will sit back and address the "personal hurt" of Drew stepping out just as the heart of the ACC schedule steps in, but now's not that time. Williams has to focus on the guys he still has with him, he says, and he's got to help them through this.

Florida State - who handed Duke its first loss of the season - comes to Chapel Hill on Sunday, and Carolina goes to Durham next Wednesday for its first match of the year with the Blue Devils.

The season clearly won't wait. Those teams don't care who left or who didn't, or when. They only care about turning Carolina into a muddy welcome mat, a tortured slab of cloth they use to wipe their sneakers clean on the way to ACC supremacy.

Carolina's resiliency has already been tested this season, but this is different. This is a blow from the inside, not a failed jab from an outside world that's expected to be hostile.

Can the Tar Heels prevent this from being a distraction and continue to build on the momentum that's left over from their last victory, a 32-point waxing at Boston College?

"Tough times don't last, but tough people do," Williams said. "It's not pleasant, but we're going to last."

Whether Carolina does last among the conference's elite will be determine over the coming weeks.

But, by March, could Drew's decision to leave actually make Carolina a better team? Forget what the bench looks like on paper today. Inside a locker room loss like this sits an opportunity.

Adversity like this that can give a team an edge. An us-against-the-world mentality.

An advantage.

As Marshall answered questions, his demeanor didn't fit his wardrobe. His relaxed practice shirt and shorts draped over his shoulders and knees, but his face remained stern. His eyes remained intent.

He exuded an air of confidence and determination, a sense that the cold corners of the ACC would have no choice but to warm up to him. He's running this team now, and he doesn't have time for worry.

Before disappearing down the tunnel and into the locker room that he will now command, Marshall made sure he set the tone. He didn't want anyone to wonder where this team will go from here.

The initial shock of losing Drew had subsided, he said, and his focus quickly became singular.

"At the end of the day, this is who we have," Marshall said of his remaining teammates. "We have to learn to get it done. If we want to be good and fight through these tough times, we are going to have to play as a closer team.

"We almost have to play possessed."





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