Thoughts on the back court

Kendall Marshall: Even after Marshall made his very loud splash onto the college basketball scene last season, there remained national sports journalists who were unwilling to label him great, at least not great in the same way that his immediate predecessors Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson were great. One went so far as to relegate him to merely “solid.”

There were sound reasons for this suggested contrast – Marshall certainly is not as quick up the floor or to the basket as either. But it was clear at season’s end that the difference is in style and not in degree of greatness. As I wrote here last spring, on a per-minute basis Marshall’s freshmen season set him on course to be one of the elite passers in NCAA history.  To long-tenured fans of Carolina basketball, it is plainly apparent that he looks for his teammates and creates scoring opportunities in ways not seen since Ed Cota, and as indicated above, that isn’t for lack of great point guards.

Because of his impact on the effectiveness of his teammates, he is arguably the most important player on the roster. The marginal gap between Marshall and his replacement (sliding Strickland to point guard) is a gulf larger even than the one between Barnes’ and a Reggie Bullock/P.J. Hairston platoon; an  injury would be catastrophic. Judging by his occasional outlet of emotion yet distinct level-headed demeanor, Marshall is a solid kid who passionately loves Carolina basketball (he committed to UNC in September of his sophomore year of high school).  Perhaps other than Barnes, there is no player I want more to watch win a national title.

Dexter Strickland: Strickland is in an awkward spot – he is the only starter not listed on the Naismith Preseason Top 50, and he has a fairly loose grip on his starter’s minutes (at least at shooting guard) with Bullock and Hairston looking to steal considerable time, particularly on days when either is shooting well. Strickland has struggled to endear himself to fans with occasional poor shot selection and turnovers, but I think this year that changes in a major way. The maturity with which he has not only accepted but embraced his role as defensive stopper is remarkable, and at several points this season, he is going to finish on the break or make a steal at a key moment and remind us why he is a crucial part of this team. There are a handful of Danny Green moments that defined his identity as a role player; Strickland will collect his and cement his legacy.

Reggie Bullock: Sincere prediction that I wanted to get in writing before the season started: Bullock is going to be one of the most notable break out players nationally of 2011-2012. At no point has Bullock received sufficient attention for his top-15 status out of high school, largely due to being a part of the same class as Barnes and then later his season-ending injury. He will get plenty of minutes this year backing up both Barnes and Strickland, and as a big, athletic wing who supposedly can stroke it from behind the arc, there is no reason he should not be a significant offensive contributor to a team lacking outside scoring.  Our most recent home-grown star was Rashad McCants, so as a proud North Carolinian, I am certainly rooting for him.

P.J. Hairston: Among the factors that could keep Bullock from accomplishing what I mentioned above, the most likely might be fellow North Carolinian Hairston. The most probable scenario is that the two of them split time more or less evenly throughout the year, with Roy playing the hot hand. But there is at least a chance that one emerges over the other, and Hairston has as good a shot as Bullock, with similar size and perhaps better shooting range. The team needs either of them to accomplish the same one purpose on any given night, providing a serious threat from outside, and based on their high school reputations and the exhibition game, the odds are in our favor.

From an entertainment perspective, watching Bullock and Hairston should be exciting and refreshing. It has been since 2009 that Carolina has had a reliable outside shooter to stretch defenses and to bail-out the offense when it is struggling, and both of these players were recruited as pure shooters. Hairston, in particular, has a reputation for one of the best and deepest outside shots that Roy has ever recruited.

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