Justin Watts (24) and Kendall Marshall (5) and forwards Harrison Barnes (40) and Tyler Zeller (44) react toward the end of a 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament game at Greensboro Coliseum. The Tar Heels defeated the Blue Jays 87-73.
Kendall Marshall underwent surgery on Monday, coming out of anesthesia asking for his teammates. Prognoses for his return to the court range from the absurdly optimistic (Marshall's father) to the more muted responses of Roy Williams, who still seems pretty despondent over the whole thing. But while every Carolina fan has become an expert on wrist fractures over the last few days, we've only gotten two brief glimpses of the team following the Marshall's announcement.
The first came immediately following the game, when Roy Williams cleared the locker room of media to talk to his team about the injury. The media was eventually allowed to return, as this piece by Adam Sobsey evocatively details. The team had barely had time to process this information. Marshall was red-eyed, and most of the rest of the team was still coming down from the adrenaline rush of an important win. You weren't really going to get much out of them beyond statements about how important Marshall was to the team, a fact which anyone who has seen the team play was already aware.
This meant Tuesday was a first chance to really gauge the attitude of this Carolina team, when Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller – both named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-America second team, and thus will have their jerseys hung in the rafters – and John Henson joined Roy Williams for the Tuesday press conference. I wasn't expecting much from these things. Players would say the measured responses to rather inane questions while Williams would field the same questions about Marshall phrased a hundred different ways with same answer. And while the latter was true – there's been no change in Marshall's status, and the team is preparing to play without him – the players came out with an attitude I wasn't expecting.
And they're angry at ESPN, specifically. All three players referenced the network, but Barnes went into the greatest detail:
"Our confidence hasn't changed at all. We feel like we have people that can step up. Doug Gottlieb, the person who knows everything, has his own statements, but we're going to go out there and continue to play good basketball."
He would call Gottlieb out two more times, egged on by the interviewing media. Zeller was particularly offended by ESPN's claim they were headed to Chapel Hill and not New Orleans; all three players were rather clear-eyed as to what both Stillman White and Justin Watts would bring to the role and upbeat about the team's chances. Barnes particularly was a quote machine on both the team's misfortune ("We were kind of joking in the locker room that if everyone were healthy there wouldn't be enough minutes for everybody anyways.") and White's growth into the point guard role over the season (When he first played, "We were scared he might have an anxiety attack and pass out.").
This is possibly the best attitude you could expect from this team. Realistic about what the loss of Marshall does to the playing style of the team, but determined to win anyway. And while Roy Williams, for obvious reasons, didn't go into too much detail about how the point guard duties will be divided – an actual question was "Do you have a plan for point guard and, if so, what is it and who will be involved?" – White and Watts would both play a role. White has gotten limited minutes at the position all season, and is averaging about four minutes a game since Strickland's injury. Watts played four or five minutes at the position against Creighton, and the impression some reporters got from today's conference is that the team, Barnes especially, really like him at the position. What's often forgotten in his limited playing time is that Watts is a senior and one of the leaders on this team; he gets a lot of respect. And while I'll often crime at his shot selection, at least once a game he'll do something that just floors me. True, it's typically a defensive play or a spectacular rebound, but I've learned to never be surprised by Justin Watts.
Don't expect to hear anything more on Marshall's status until short before the game on Friday. I doubt will see him play, and here UNC is fortunate to draw Ohio as an opponent. Although strong defensively (and man do they force a lot of turnovers), they're not as strong a team as Creighton. The Tar Heels will have time to find their footing before facing Kansas or N.C. State, two teams that will definitely cause Carolina no end of trouble. Until then, you can only take the attitude the players seem to. Shrug off the doubters, adjust to the circumstances, and keep winning.