CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams says he feels comfortable playing Kendall Marshall 35, 36, 37 minutes -- if he has to.
Marshall says he has every confidence he can do it, too.
After all, the sophomore point guard has done it before.
It was only about a year ago -- in early February, just four games after being inserted into the starting lineup -- that Marshall found himself the Tar Heels’ only true ballhandler after Larry Drew II inexplicably opted to bolt town and announce his transfer. Marshall averaged 34.7 minutes over his final nine ACC regular-season games, then 35.1 minutes in UNC’s seven postseason outings.
Now that starting shooting guard/back-up point guard Dexter Strickland is out for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee, Marshall finds himself in an eerily similar situation.
“It’s almost like déjà vu,’’ Marshall said Wednesday. “Last year, we took a bad loss, started playing, playing well, lost a player and had to figure it out from there.
“…I have full faith in our team that we’ll get it done. I think we’re a lot more relaxed than at this point last year. We were like, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do without Larry?’ But I think going through it for a second time, we’re a lot more aware of the situation. And now we just want to play basketball.”
Marshall said the hardest part of last season’s final 16 games was the ACC tournament, when UNC played three games in three days (including one in overtime): “I think that’s the only time where I felt physically worn out,’’ he said.
He did have Strickland -- who grew more and more comfortable handling the ball as last season wore on -- to spell him. But now that he’s out, the only other ballhandler left is freshman Stilman White, who has averaged only 4.3 minutes over 15 games, mostly when the outcome has been decided.
Williams, whose eighth-ranked team plays N.C. State on Thursday, said he would probably use the 6-foot, 160-pounder mostly around TV timeouts to try to give Marshall a longer breather.
“If he does well, he’ll get more opportunities,’’ Williams said of White. “And if he doesn’t do well, we’ll try to make sure we try to keep Kendall fresher some way. I think it just depends on how it goes when he gets in there.”
Marshall, who is averaging a team-high 31.2 minutes this season, doesn’t seem particularly worried about his potential increase in playing time.
Since last season, he said, he’s learned to take better care of his body -- stretching more, getting to bed earlier.
Williams said Marshall could still improve in the weight room, but “he’s worked, done a nice job on his body. Not anything as much as I want him to do, but I might be able to say that about a lot of other guys, too.”
Still, he's sure his starting point guard can compete for longer stretches, just like last season.
“I think he can play 34, 35 minutes per game,’’ Williams said. “I hope that he doesn’t have to. But I think he can, if we ask him to.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at@bylinerp.