CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall doesn’t know a whole lot about former Georgia Tech ballhandler Craig Neal.
“I just see his name on the list, and I’ve been trucking away at these names,’’ Marshall said earlier this week.
You can’t really blame the sophomore if Neal doesn’t pique his memory. Marshall wasn’t even born when the 6-foot-5 Yellow Jackets passer set the ACC single-season record for assists, in 1987-88. His 303 dish-out-mark has survived the careers of some of the league’s great passers, such as NC State’s Chris Corchiani, Duke’s Bobby Hurley, and UNC's Ed Cota.
Even Neal is surprised at how long it has held up. Although Marshall, whose team will play either Maryland or Wake Forest on Friday in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, is only five assists away from breaking it.
“I just think the game is played a little bit different, maybe," Neal, now an assistant coach at New Mexico, said during a phone interview this week. “I think kids are trying to score more.... But Marshall, he’s an old-school point guard.”
By “old-school,’’ Neal includes the best ballhandlers of the '80s, guys such as UNLV’s Mark Wade (406 assists in 1986-87), Southern’s Avery Johnson (399 in 1987-88) and Bradley’s Anthony Manuel (373 in 1987-88) who still top the NCAA record books in assists for a season. (Neal is 12th).
There are several factors accounting for why their marks remain: Assists weren’t counted as an official stat by the NCAA until the mid-1980s, meaning they set the standard. The best players (and point guards) don’t necessarily stay four seasons anymore, limiting their chances to break records.
And as Marshall explained, “In the new generation, point guards are a lot more scorers, and they’re looking to attack the basket. I’m not saying they’re not going to pass, but that’s not maybe their first priority, because teams need them to score.”
That wasn’t the case when Neal played. Teamed with a starting lineup that included Dennis Scott, Tom Hammonds, Duane Ferrell and Brian Oliver, the fifth-year senior recorded fewer points (247) than assists on the up-tempo ‘88 team that went 22-10 under Bobby Cremins.
“We had some great games; my assist totals really started adding up in ACC games rather than in preconference games, so I think that means a lot more to me now, just because of how good the league was back then,’’ Neal said. “ … I think one of the greatest things about our team was we really all knew our roles, and sometimes, that doesn’t happen now with teams. And that was a unique situation, and they had a lot of confidence in me. I had the ball in my hands a lot, and was just trying to make something happen, other than try to score."
Sort of like Marshall.
In two of his last four games, UNC’s 6-foot-4 creator has scored 20 or more points, proving he is more than “just” a passer.
But he still prefers to fuel a play rather than finish it (to the tune of 9.6 apg per game this season) which Neal says remains an underappreciated quality.
“I think the perception of, ‘You have to score to be a big time point guard and impress everyone’, I think that’s a really big misconception,’’ Neal said. “Everybody dreams about playing after college, and it’s just so funny that a lot of guys like myself from the ‘80s got a chance to play because we were point guards. We understood the importance of the position. We were unselfish, and it was team first.
“And I think kids, the media … everybody these days gets fired up on dunks, and how many points you score. And there’s not too many highlights on ESPN or anywhere else where they show a great pass, or a kid that throws five or six great passes or leads his team to winning 22 games and being ranked high. I think sometimes, it’s just so sensationalized that it [assists] just kind of gets lost in the shuffle. But in the 80s, it was important. And playing that position was important.”
Maybe Marshall (as well as Iona's Scott Machado, the only player this season averaging more assist than him, at 9.9 per game) is bringing that aspect of the game back into the spotlight. UNC coach Roy Williams noted earlier this week that his starting ballhandler "makes better decisions with the basketball than any point guard I’ve ever had."
It was a compliment that made Marshall say "wow."
Meanwhile, Neal noted one of the kids from his hometown -- ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller, from Washington, Ind. -- has contributed to Marshall’s impressive assist total, powering the record-breaking pace with lay-ups and hook shots and dunks.
Perhaps it’s another sign that the time (and player) is right for this 24-year-old record to finally fall.
“[Marshall] has got his team playing as good as anybody in the country, and they can make a deep run in the tournament, and the reason is because of him,’’ Neal said. “It’s not always what’s in the drink, it’s what stirs the drink. He’s a unique player, he’s a special kid, and I’m a big fan of his.
“… All records are meant to be broken, and I’m happy that a player of his magnitude and somebody that I really respect as a player, is going to break mine.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.