Under Pressure

ST. LOUIS – In an effort to offset top-seeded North Carolina's sizeable advantage in the frontcourt, 13th-seeded Ohio will rely on frantic ball pressure to capitalize on Kendall Marshall's potential absence. The Tar Heels, however, believe they are prepared.

John Groce's defensive approach is intent on testing your confidence and poise with the ball. It's a hectic style designed to force turnovers and it's proven lethal all season long. The Bobcats rank fourth nationally in steals (9.3 per game) and sixth in turnover margin (plus-4.2).

Ohio has forced 20 or more turnovers in 11 games this season, including a season-high 31 against Robert Morris. Opponents are averaging 17.3 turnovers per game against the Bobcats, which makes Marshall's playing status a critical aspect of the 13-seed's hopes of pulling the upset and advancing to the school's first-ever Elite Eight.

Senior wing Justin Watts, who has logged seven career minutes at point guard, split point reps in practice this week with true freshman Stilman White, who was a late addition to the 2011 recruiting class after Larry Drew's midseason departure last season. White has totaled 19 assists in 136 minutes this season, two fewer than Marshall dished out in last weekend's NCAA Tournament victories over Vermont and Creighton.

Marshall has done his part in helping to aid his potential replacements this week with advice and words of encouragement.

"Well, first he told me not to try to play like him and I never would do that," Watts said. "But he just told me to be myself and that he feels pretty confident in me. I feel confident and my team believes in me. I believe that they'll step up and help me if I need some help, but I'm just going to go out there and have fun and play."

Watts, who has successfully avoid media coverage for most of the season, offered few words on Thursday afternoon, but those words were loaded with conviction.

When asked about Ohio attempting to test his ball-handling skills on Friday, Watts responded: "I'm pretty confident in my handle, so I'm not worried about that."

A reporter mentioned the Bobcats' aggressive fullcourt defense and Watts once again waved off concern.

"I heard they like to press," he said. "You don't have to dribble to beat the press. You can just pass, so it's pretty simple."

White has not endured the adversity throughout his career that has molded Watts into the senior leader that he has become, but the Wilmington, N.C. product entered the season as the third option on the depth chart and received a hard dose of Division I reality when backup point guard Dexter Strickland suffered a season-ending ACL injury in January.

White admitted to being nervous and feeling a variety of emotions on Thursday, but indicated that he was mostly excited about the opportunity that awaits against Ohio.

"He looks good," Harrison Barnes said of White. "He looks more confident and he's really embracing the role of being that starting point guard and knowing that he's going to have to go out there and make plays. He's not trying to overcompensate or do too much. He's just playing his game and getting us into the offense."

Regardless of which player is in the game at point guard, Ohio's defensive pressure will remain constant. North Carolina has always approached the NCAA's open practices as little more than a shootaround to placate the fans in attendance, but the Tar Heels ran the three-man weave with more intensity at the Edward Jones Arena on Thursday than any drill in recent memory.

Without Marshall's auto-pilot capabilities, advancing the ball will be more of a team effort rather than just the responsibility of Watts and White.

"We've worked on a few things, mainly just screens and just working on trying to free up the ball-handlers," White said. "We know that they're really good at getting steals, so we know they're aggressive on defense, but that's something we're looking forward to. We think if we can beat that pressure that opens up a lot of things for us."

One thing is for certain, though. Don't expect the Tar Heels to become a team content with just its halfcourt offense. This is still a Roy Williams-led squad, with or without Marshall.

"We'll have to change a few things, but I think our staple is still going to be running," Barnes said. "I think we can get out on the break and continue to go up and down. I feel like we should be just fine."

The facts may work in North Carolina's favor. In three games against power conference opponents – Louisville, Michigan and South Florida – Ohio has forced just 32 total turnovers, good for 10.7 per game.

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