Kendall Marshall is catalyst for Tar Heels

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North Carolina's Kendall Marshall is second in the nation in assists and will play a key role in tonight's game against rival Duke.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
North Carolina's Kendall Marshall is second in the nation in assists and will play a key role in tonight's game against rival Duke.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Kendall Marshall has made himself North Carolina’s most irreplaceable player.

The sophomore point guard is second nationally in assists, averaging 9.8 per game. He has been the perfect floor leader for coach Roy Williams’ fast-paced attack with his see-everything court vision and precise passing that make the fifth-ranked Tar Heels hum in transition.

He’ll need to be on his game heading into today’s rivalry game with No. 10 Duke.

It was about this time a year ago that Marshall took over as starter for Larry Drew II, who quit days later.

The Tar Heels (20-3, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) have gone 37-6 with him since, though they have little depth behind him after losing junior Dexter Strickland to a season-ending knee injury in January.

“They said that last year with losing Larry: is it more pressure?” Marshall said with a laugh. “Now we lose Dexter: is it more pressure? If they start putting too much pressure, I don’t know if I’m going to be alive.”

The Tar Heels have plenty of potential NBA talent in Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller, but it’s difficult to imagine how the Tar Heels would look if Marshall was hurt or on the bench with foul trouble.

He can dominate play despite taking only a handful of shots, from the way he protects the ball against pressure to his deft touch on pitch-aheads to teammates who have beaten defenders down the court.

Marshall, averaging 6.5 points, is playing about 34 minutes in ACC games.

In last weekend’s win at Maryland, he played the final 7½ minutes with four fouls and went on to tie his career high with 16 assists in the 83-74 win.

It marked the fifth time he has tallied at least 15 assists in a game. No other North Carolina player has managed more than one in program history.

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