The Duke game will be big, but so was Sunday's outing against Florida State. The Smith Center crowd Sunday was one of the best this author has ever seen -- loud, enthusiastic and proud from before the opening tip.
Their reward was getting to witness one of the all-time great performances by a Tar Heel point guard in a big game. Kendall Marshall delivered 16 assists against just three turnovers (one a palming call deep into garbage time), including several for layups off penetration moves. He also nailed the two biggest shots of the game: the opening 3-pointer to make it 3-0 and send the crowd into a near-frenzy, and then an improbable heave as the shot clock wound down after the Seminoles had cut a 16-point lead to 7 at 57-50 with 10:27 to play. That three-point shot by the freshman was the mother of all daggers, and FSU never seriously challenged again.
Marshall deserves all the plaudits he will get for that performance. But the entire starting unit made terrific contributions: double-doubles from Henson and Barnes, an efficient (6-8) game from Zeller, and one of the best games to date of Dexter Strickland's career.
Strickland got to the basket, hit a couple of jumpers, and handed out four assists of his own. He also stayed under control and made the smart, easy play in transition more than once. His five consecutive points after FSU had cut the lead to 31-27 in the first half -- and after an annoyed Roy Williams had sent two subs to the scorer's table -- was one of the key stretches of the game. If Strickland can play that well (or close to it) on a consistent basis the rest of the season, Carolina is going to win a lot more games and likely play quite a lot in March.
Indeed, for all the off-court events of the past week, this was also the week that Carolina turned the question about its NCAA Tournament participation this year from "will Carolina make it?" to "how high can Carolina be seeded?" Beating Boston College by 32 away and a good FSU team by 20 at home would be a great week in any season. Consider this: Carolina has now won three consecutive ACC games by 20 or more points, the first time that has happened since late in the 2005-06 season. (It may be worth noting that immediately after that three-game run, the 2006 team went to Cameron Indoor Stadium and won as a heavy underdog, one of the most surprising results in the season's recent history.)
Nonetheless, the events of Friday certainly were a major part of the backdrop for this game. Roy Williams emphasized it had been a difficult 48 hours for the team, though he did say he was very pleased with practice Friday and Saturday and expected the Tar Heels to play well on Sunday. At a Friday meeting, Drew's departure was discussed amongst the team at length, and then Williams gave the team a chance Saturday morning to add anything else that remained unsaid or that they had thought of overnight. No one had anything to add, so he sent the team out to practice.
In postgame comments, the sense from speaking with multiple players was that the team was less miffed with Drew's decision than the manner in which it was carried out. At Friday's meeting, Harrison Barnes reported, "We were sad he was leaving, and hurt about how we found out about it." John Henson added: "I was upset I didn't get to say bye to him." (None of the players talked to had either said good-bye to Drew or heard anything from him.)
Henson said he will miss Franklin Street food runs with Drew, while Justin Watts said he will miss his friendship with the former point guard: "[He and I] went through more stuff than anyone on the team -- I saw his highest highs and lowest lows." Dexter Strickland referred to the situation simply as "our loss."
At the same time, the players stressed two themes: that the nine core players left on the team all want to be in Chapel Hill to be part of the program, and the importance of each of them being "all in" for a common cause the rest of the year. "Our team chemistry is very, very good," said Tyler Zeller. "I would argue it's the best in the nation."
Of course, as the player most affected by recent events, Marshall has his own unique challenge: handling as much playing time as his legs and lungs will allow. Marshall was clearly gassed at the end of the game (that palming violation was a classic "tired" turnover), and he threw up at halftime. But Marshall also reported that he threw up before or during his high school games "about half the time." If Marshall continues to play this well while retching, then high school point guards across the state of North Carolina may soon be asking their coaches to install special garbage cans in the locker room to help boost their own performances.
In short, Drew's departure and the manner of it unquestionably hurt the feelings of his former coaches and teammates, but Sunday provided no evidence on or off the court that it has hurt this team's prospects of success in 2011.
To be sure, Carolina won't have the luxury of playing at home every game the rest of the year, and can't expect to get 16 assists from Marshall or shoot 56 percent as a team every night. Having only one true scholarship point guard on the roster is never an ideal situation, and it will in all likelihood create some challenging situations down the line for Williams and his players to negotiate. In particular, expect opposing coaches to devote a lot more time and attention to the question of how to disrupt Marshall's effectiveness in putting together their game plans in the weeks ahead.
The players understand this, and all indications are they welcome the challenge -- including the one on Wednesday night in Durham. Harrison Barnes allowed Sunday that he expected the Cameron Crazies to be "excited to see me." So will the legions of Carolina fans who after Sunday's outing can't wait to see this team play again -- against Duke, and everyone else too.
Thad has return to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.