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February 8, 2012

Locked in on Marshall

When Duke takes the court opposite of North Carolina Wednesday night in Chapel Hill, the challenges facing it will certainly be of extremely high proportions.

Discussions of North Carolina's potent frontcourt, one that most label as the best in the nation, are extremely prevalent. Keeping the Tar Heels away from the offensive glass and not allowing their bigs to consistently make plays in transition will be of the utmost importance for the Blue Devils.

In each of UNC's losses this season, its opponent won the rebounding battle. Clearly, doing the same will be one of the main points of emphasis for the Blue Devils.

But perhaps the biggest key of the game for Mike Krzyzewski's team will be controlling Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall and preventing him from taking over the contest with his exceptional court vision and spectacular passing abilities.

Most would agree that as Marshall goes, so too do the Tar Heels. When he struggles, North Carolina's offense finds it difficult to execute.

"That's like cutting the head off the monster," Duke guard Tyler Thornton said of shutting down Marshall. "If they don't have their leader on the floor, their primary ball handler, it's kind of hard for them to get into their sets and do that run and gun type of offense."

Thornton's comments are strongly backed up by past games in which UNC did not leave the floor as winners. Though Marshall's numbers have not been terrible in UNC's three losses this season, they have been down to a degree.

The sophomore guard is averaging three assists fewer than his season mark in those games, posting 6.6 per contest, and is turning the ball over nearly twice as much with four miscues each time out.

In last season's ACC Tournament final, Duke controlled the game from start to finish. The primary reason was the defensive performance Nolan Smith put together against Marshall.

Smith smothered Marshall from the very beginning, and the young point guard never found a rhythm as a result. He completed the game with one of his worst showings as a collegiate player at that time, turning the ball over five times while handing out just four assists and scoring only eight points on 3-of-10 shooting.

In the previous two games between the programs, Marshall had been outstanding, averaging 12 points, 8.5 assists and just 1.5 turnovers.

"We all watched the game and saw the difference between when Duke went to North Carolina last year, or even here in Cameron, where Kendall had a lot of free range and got his team going," Duke freshman Quinn Cook said. "But the ACC Tournament, it was a different story because we had a lot of pressure on him. I'm not saying Kendall can't handle pressure, but it kinda had an affect on him."

With Smith now playing for the NBA's Portland Trailblazers, Thornton and Cook will take over duties to defend Marshall. Unlike last season, one guy cannot be counted on to slow him down, so both will have an opportunity to matchup with their longtime friend.

Thornton and Cook have spent significant time since Sunday night studying film of Marshall. They looked at Marshall in games from this season, losses and victories, and the two have watched closely to see how Smith handled him a year ago.

After extensively studying Marshall and how team's have approached him, the two will certainly incorporate Smith's strategy, as well as others, into their own for tonight's contest.

Though every team has been unique in how it has defended Marshall, there has been one constant - crowding Marshall and not allowing him to run at his own pace.

"The first thing you want to do is get his back turned," Cook noted. "Nolan Smith did a great job on him last year in the ACC Tournament, in the championship game, and he had Kendall's back turned a lot, so Kendall couldn't really do what he's capable of doing.

"Me, Tyler and Seth have just been watching tape on trying to get his back turned and try to speed him up. If you get him in a good rhythm and he has a little opening he can make the craziest pass look simple. It's just something we have to pressure him and get him turned."

Thornton added that after watching last season's victory in Greensboro it was clear that "Kendall wasn't able to focus on his team, he was worried about Nolan the whole game."

Heading into tonight's game, Thornton and Cook will take in a mindset in which they hope to force Marshall to think of them and not just what he is trying to accomplish with the basketball.

If the two young guards can do that, they believe Duke will have an excellent chance of leaving Chapel Hill with the victory.

In the end, though, Thornton and Cook know that no matter how much they are able to take Marshall out of his game, they must never lose focus when defending him. If they do, Thornton says that is when the sophomore guard can hurt them the most.

And while Thornton and Cook will draw the responsibility of defending Marshall straight up, the rest of the team cannot be spectators on that end of the floor. If they are, then chances are the Tar Heels will take advantage of every opportunity.

"With a guy like that, everybody has to be engaged on the possession," Thornton noted. "Everybody has to see the ball and see their man at the same time because he can just fling it in there right over your head and you won't even know it. You've got to be focused. Everybody's got to be locked in."


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