ST. LOUIS – So here's the deal for North Carolina fans: Your season depends on a bone the size of a cashew and a backup point guard Cosmopolitan magazine seems to love more than Roy Williams does.
Feeling confident yet?
Kendall Marshall is the best point guard left in the NCAA tournament, but he may not play another minute after fracturing the scaphoid bone in his right wrist last Sunday against Creighton. He had that wrist in a black brace Thursday at the Edward Jones Dome while the Tar Heels held their public practice. He did not participate in the practice, nor did he participate in Carolina's real workout earlier in the day.
Marshall says he is day-to-day and a final call will be made Friday, but he hasn't so much as dribbled a ball all week.
"I have a strong, strong inclination that he is not going to play," Williams said.
That's a strong, strong indication that freshman Stilman White will start in Marshall's absence. Until now, White's biggest claim to fame was making Cosmo's 24-man list of the "Hottest Guys of March Madness." Williams seems to view White as more of a hot mess, referring to him as "wacko" several times Thursday.
"He's really a nice kid," Williams said. "I mean, he's a little wacko now. … I mean, no, he's a lot wacko. But he's really a good kid. And we have enjoyed the dickens out of him.
"Stilman is like a little colt running around out there. Kendall thinks three plays ahead. Stilman's still trying to think [whether] he's got both shoes tied. … But Stilman's got a little toughness to him. I mean, he really does. Like I say, he's wacko and maybe it's the wacko to the extent that he doesn't realize it, but I like the toughness. He's willing to try to make plays. I don't worry any more about Stilman tomorrow than I would if he was going to play two minutes. Because he's still wacko. …
"We have thrown him out there a couple of minutes in some big games and he's done fine. And he comes back over to the bench and just sort of sits down and he's got this little grin on his face, and somebody will say, 'Good job.' And he will say, 'What did I do?' "
According to my Roy-to-English dictionary, "wacko" roughly translates to "clueless." That might work to White's advantage in a thankless situation like this. The enormity of the moment may sail right over the 6-foot top of White's addled head.
"He's just going to run with it," Marshall said. "He's not going to get worried about it. That's just Stilman."
The kid looks more like a member of Carolina's famed junior-varsity squad, and his season stats are the stuff of walk-ons: 0.7 points and 0.3 assists per game. His season high is three points, and he's made exactly one shot since January.
But if you think White is callow, the alternative is Justin Watts. He's a senior, but has spent no more than 10 minutes of his career playing point guard. So White is John Stockton by comparison.
White was signed last spring as point guard insurance, after Larry Drew II unexpectedly bolted from the program during the season. It turned out to be a very astute use of a scholarship.
White is from Wilmington, N.C., but nobody is confusing his upside with that of another Wilmington product who went to Carolina – Michael Jordan. White is leaving school after this season, but not because he's turning pro. He's going on a Mormon mission, following the lead of his parents, Erin and Shannon, who did missions in their youth in California and Puerto Rico.
"I'm pretty committed to a two-year mission," White said. "It's something I've looked forward to since I was 8 years old. … I planned on going [on a mission] out of high school, then North Carolina started recruiting me."
Before the sudden interest from the Heels, White was a low-profile recruit who probably was headed to BYU. Now he's a likely starter in the Sweet 16.
"It's been hectic," he said. "A lot of people are trying to talk to you, give you advice. Sometimes you've got to just block all that out. But it's hard, I'm not going to lie."
White definitely is not blocking out the advice of Marshall, who was remarkably sunny in the Carolina locker room Thursday. If Heels fans everywhere are morose, they should take their lead from the guy they're feeling sorry for. He's not.
Marshall has "#passfirst" written on his wrist brace, a Twitter motto someone started up anonymously in support of the ACC's new single-season assist record-holder. Marshall says it not only exemplifies his playing style but can be extrapolated as a game plan for life.
"Help other people out," Marshall said. "You can use it on the court or off."
The one topic that dampens Marshall's demeanor a bit is whether his broken wrist was the result of an excessive foul. Creighton's Ethan Wragge took down Marshall on a drive to prevent a layup, prompting a lot of discussion about the propriety of the play.
"I mean, there's so many ways you can look at it," Marshall said. "Do I think he was trying to foul me? Yes. Do I think he meant to foul me that hard? I don't know. I didn't fall real well. But it's not my place to say."
For a passer, Marshall sure wasn't willing to give Wragge a pass. Part of that could stem from a couple of other questionable collisions in the game: one when Creighton's Grant Gibbs banged into John Henson and his sprained wrist, which resulted in Henson later going after Gibbs and getting a technical foul; and Bluejays center Gregory Echenique flat leveling Carolina center Tyler Zeller with two forearms to the chops.
Williams was angry about the latter, and Creighton coach Greg McDermott called him to apologize for that shot from Echenique. But otherwise, Carolina is at least publicly writing them off as the breaks of the game.
It's just amazing how many bad breaks one team can have in a season. The Marshall and Henson wrist injuries come after the torn ACLs suffered by guards Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland – and the Strickland injury is the only thing that got Stilman White off the bench for any meaningful minutes to begin with.
Nobody in Hoopsworld is prone to feel sorry for North Carolina. There have been too many wins, too many great players, too much great coaching over the decades. Goliath never has been a sympathetic figure.
But when the best point guard in the tournament is on the verge of being replaced by a guy only Cosmo could love, the Tar Heels suddenly look a lot more mortal than usual.
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