CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Kendall Marshall has made himself fifth-ranked North Carolina's most irreplaceable player.
The sophomore point guard is second nationally in assists, averaging 9.8 per game. He's 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 for the Tar Heels heading into Wednesday'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 the team 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 last month.
"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. Williams uses the only true backup — 6-foot freshman Stilman White — for brief stretches just before media timeouts to give Marshall as long of a break as possible without keeping him sidelined more than a few plays.
In last weekend's win at Maryland, Marshall 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 UNC player has managed more than one in program history.
Bill Guthridge coached some of the program's best point guards — Phil Ford and Kenny Smith, to name two — as the longtime assistant to Dean Smith and Smith's successor for three seasons as head coach. He sees similarities between Marshall and Ed Cota, the pass-first point guard who set a school record with 1,030 assists and finished his career in 2000 ranked third in NCAA history behind Duke's Bobby Hurley (1,076) and North Carolina State's Chris Corchiani (1,038), according to STATS LLC.
"It was really fun to coach Ed Cota and it was amazing how he could get the ball to the right person at the right time," Guthridge said. "I think Kendall is the same way — and Kendall might even see up the floor better.
"He sees the court so well, all 94 feet of it. He amazes me with some of the passes that he makes. He doesn't make very many bad passes."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sees the same thing.
"When Bobby played here, for all you who can remember, he got a lot of assists in transition," Krzyzewski said. "And I think that's where Kendall is different than any other point guard in the country. He can really pass ahead. And not just a pass ahead for somebody to make a move. He's made the move for the guy with the pass. With the runners that they have, you can get a lot of assists."
Marshall's 9.8-assist season average is three more than second-place Lorenzo Brown of N.C. State, and it's on pace to shatter Cota's single-season record of 8.1 per game in 2000. Despite spending the first half of his freshman season splitting minutes with Drew, Marshall is already 11th in program history with 456 assists and has as many double-digit assist games as Ford (16).
He also ranks second nationally in assist-turnover ratio at 3.42.
"I think the coaching staff and my teammates have put me in the position to be very successful," Marshall said. "My teammates do a great job of finishing plays. There are plays where I may hit John seven feet from the basket, and with his length, he can turn that into a layup. There are places I give Harrison the ball and he's able to hit tough shots, so I in no way take full credit for that."
Maybe not, but there's no denying the change since Marshall took over. A team coming off an ugly 20-point loss to lowly Georgia Tech went on to chase down the Blue Devils (19-4, 6-2) and win the ACC regular-season title before falling a game short of the Final Four.
Barnes said the biggest difference in Marshall is been-there, done-that confidence.
"He doesn't have to worry about 'Oh, am I going to go out here and make the right play?' He's done that a million times," Barnes said. "He's been on that stage for clutch games, being in the NCAA tournament, going to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. I think he's much more poised. He goes out there and he knows exactly where to get to his spots and how to make those plays."
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter @aaronbeardap