PG battle 'challenge within the Challenge'

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The first time North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall remembers meeting Wisconsin ballhandler Jordan Taylor was at last summer’s Chris Paul camp -- and Marshall really wanted to hate him.

“We play the same position, people are going to compare us. He's a great player,’’ Marshall explained. “ But ... once I got to know him off the court, he's very cool to be around, and I admire how much he's gotten better over the years and done things the right way.”

Marshall, though, has tried to put all that friendliness aside this week, as Taylor’s seventh-ranked Badgers come to town to face the No. 5 Tar Heels.

Although there will be plenty of keys to Wednesday night's Big Ten/ACC matchup -- rebounding, outside shooting, which team sets the pace -- the point guard showdown will be what Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan dubbed “a challenge within the Challenge.”

“Those two guys, they understand the game, they understand what the team needs, and they bring that every night when they are on the floor,’’ Ryan told reporters Monday. “Some nights are better than others. But in college basketball, I think that’s pretty exciting, having attempted the position as a player and having coached some guys who I thought were pretty good point guards.”

The two ballhandlers key vastly different styles of offenses. Taylor’s Badgers play at a deliberate pace that tends to cut down on possessions while looking for the best shot (often a 3-pointer, of which they are making 47.2 percent). Marshall’s Tar Heels, meanwhile, prefer a breakneck transition game in which even the 7-footers try to beat everyone else down the floor.

The former is right-handed and averages 11 points and 5.8 assists per game; the latter is a leftie who is averaging 4.8 points and 10.8 assists. One wasn’t highly recruited; the other was a McDonald's All-American.

But it’s their similarities that make them two of the top point guards in the country.

“Both of them really like to make their team win,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They try to make their [teammates] better. They try to get the ball to other people. They’re more facilitators than scorers, although Jordan can really score.

“He is really, really good. Everybody’s going to be treated to watch this kid play, because he is really, really good. He plays it on both ends on the court, he can drive and pull up, he’s strong, he can go to the basket, and he can shoot the ball from the outside.”

Indeed, Marshall said what he admires most about the 6-foot-1 senior is that he’s multidimensional. Taylor, in turn, called the 6-4 sophomore “the consummate point guard.”

“What I admire about his game is the way he sees the floor,’’ Taylor said. “ He’s always finding the open guy and he’s really unselfish.”

Whether the duo will match up one-on-one for the entire game, though, is in doubt. To make up for Marshall’s lack of defensive footspeed, UNC usually puts shooting guard Dexter Strickland on an opponent’s quickest scorer.

Even if that happens, expect all eyes to be on the ballhandlers -- who, since last summer, have kept in touch via text messaging.

(Although not this week.)

“I try not to be too friendly with my competitors days before the game,’’ Marshall said. “I'm sure once the game goes by, we'll talk about it, and hopefully I'll be able to have bragging rights.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.