Protecting the Point

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Backup point guard Stilman White has already received a large helping of media attention since news broke last week that Dexter Strickland would miss the rest of the season with an ACL tear, but it's up to his teammates to make sure that he's not an ominous headline moving forward.

UNC head coach Roy Williams delivered a splash of cold reality on his Monday night radio show when asked what the Wilmington, N.C. freshman needed to improve on in short order.

"It's really easy – he's got to get bigger, stronger, quicker, faster and more experienced," Williams said. "… He's going to be given the chance to get into the game and we'll see. Nobody's got a magic wand and knows what will happen. Quentin Thomas, his freshman year, really couldn't handle it. Kendall Marshall, his freshman year, was off the charts and my guess is that Stilman will be somewhere in there."

But the truth of the matter is that White should rarely, if ever, be put in a difficult situation over the final 10 weeks of the season. The combination of Marshall's ability to log increased minutes in his starting role paired with the other Tar Heels bringing a consistent intensity level should be enough to insulate White from any serious danger.

Williams has consistently pointed to former point guard Raymond Felton as his reference point for logging serious minutes over the course of a season.

"In '05, Raymond averaged 34 minutes a game, but he was as tough a kid as I have ever coached as much as he was banged up and he played a physical style of point guard play, anyway," Williams said on Monday.

In actuality, Felton averaged 31.7 minutes for the season and 33.0 minutes during UNC's six NCAA Tournament games. Once Larry Drew left Chapel Hill under the guise of night early last February, Marshall averaged 34.7 minutes in his final nine ACC regular season games. Those minutes slightly rose to 35.1 minutes in UNC's seven postseason contests.

Williams joked shortly following Drew's departure that Marshall didn't quite have Felton's physique to withstand the increased demands on his body, but that's no longer the case.

When asked on Wednesday if he was comfortable with Marshall possibly playing up to 36-37 minutes a game, Williams responded: "If he has to, yes, I'd be comfortable."

"He's worked and done a nice job on his body," Williams continued. "Not anything as much as I want him to do, but I might be able to say that about a lot of other guys, too. But I think that's one area where Kendall can really still make strides. We've got to sell him on that and he's got to buy into it and he's got to do it, but he is doing a better job in the weight room. He is better."

North Carolina only has one two-day turnaround this season – vs. Georgia Tech on Jan. 29 and then at Wake Forest on Jan. 31 – before the challenge of navigating the ACC Tournament. Marshall logged 107 minutes in a span of 51 hours in the 2011 ACC Tournament.

Marshall told reporters that the most important thing he learned from last season's grueling final stretch is to take care of his body by making sure that he does extra stretching and gets to bed at a decent time.

"Little things like that might not affect your play, but they can definitely wear down your body," Marshall said. "So I learned from that, but some things you just have to go along with like playing the ACC Tournament with three games in three days. You can't really prepare for that, you just have to go into it."

The critical factor in keeping Marshall's minutes down so far this season -- he's averaging 31.2 minutes per game – has not been Strickland's ability as his backup as much of the team's ability to build substantial leads against inferior opponents.

After back-to-back matchups against top-10 opponents Wisconsin and Kentucky in which Marshall played a combined 73 minutes, the sophomore point guard averaged 28.4 minutes over a seven-game home span against nonconference opponents. The average margin of victory in those seven wins? A solid 30.6 points per game.

Those types of blowouts won't often occur in ACC play, but the quality of the league has taken a drastic hit in recent years. USA Today's Jeff Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy continue to rank the ACC as the nation's fifth-best conference.

N.C. State – UNC's opponent on Thursday night – is tied atop the ACC standings with a 4-1 conference record, but the Wolfpack has amassed that mark against teams with a combined 9-16 league record and an average RPI ranking of 127.6. That's not a knock against N.C. State, but rather a telling statement as to how bad the ACC actually is this season.

If the kumbaya moment that supposedly occurred within the UNC locker room at Cassell Coliseum during halftime of last Thursday's victory takes seed, then the Tar Heels have an opportunity to post some sizeable wins in conference play that will buy Marshall valuable minutes on the bench.

That, of course, remains to be seen. Despite a 33-point dismantling at Florida State on Jan. 14, UNC still showed up flat against Virginia Tech and trailed by five at halftime before putting the game away with a 19-0 run in the second half.

The biggest concern for the Tar Heels comes in the form of injury or foul trouble for Marshall. A serious injury to Marshall has always been a season-breaker, even prior to Strickland's ACL tear, but foul trouble becomes even more of a problem. Marshall fouled out against Florida State and has totaled three fouls in five other games.

Williams worked around Felton's foul trouble in the '05 NCAA Tournament by playing a 2-3 zone for stretches in games against Villanova and Wisconsin in the Syracuse Regional and against Illinois in the national title game.

In the days following Drew's defection last February, Williams offered this comment in how he planned to proceed: "The substitution pattern was something that I spent a lot of time thinking about, but Coach [Dean] Smith used to say that every game plan is good for the first four or five minutes and then you've got to go by the seat of your pants."

White will have his moments to shine or fail, but it's up to his teammates to ensure the former while preventing the latter.

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