ST. LOUIS -- As North Carolina gets ready for this weekend's series of games in the Midwest Regional at the Edward Jones Dome, all eyes are on point guard Kendall Marshall, and many of the questions posed to Roy Williams and the other Tar Heel players on Thursday were related to Marshall.
Williams continues to say what he's been saying all week -- that he is preparing his team for Friday night's Regional Semifinal against Ohio as if they'll play without Marshall, and that he doesn't expect Marshall to take the floor against the Bobcats.
"I have a strong, strong inclination that he is not going to play. But at my press conference this week, I said I'll satisfy half of you by saying, okay, he's going to play and he's going to start and he's going to play every minute. And I'll satisfy the other half of you by saying there's no way in Hades that he's going to play. And that should tell you that I really don't know," said Williams.
Williams also attempting to bring some levity to the situation, which also isn't anything new, by talking about what would compel him to play Marshall, as well as some of the things UNC fans have been doing to show their support for Marshall.
"If he comes in to my room tomorrow and says, 'My wrist feels great,' and he drops down to the floor and does 10 right‑handed pushups on his right hand, then I'll say I'll probably play his rear end. But I don't expect that to happen," he said.
"People are putting 5's on their wrists and writing five in some letters, and I'm not getting a dadgum tattoo. I love Kendall Marshall, but I'm not getting a tattoo. Let's get that straight," Williams added.
The UNC coach indicated a few examples of how Marshall is still working through some significant challenges related to Sunday's injury and Monday's surgery, which including inserting a cannulated screw into his broken right wrist scaphoid bone.
"I mean, the guy can't brush his teeth right now. But we've had other doctors say 'Oh, yeah, he can play,' and all those kind of things. So that's what's caused in my opinion, all the interest or all the difference of opinion whether he can play or not," he said.
"But the bottom line is, he has not participated in one play since last Sunday when I took him out of the game. He has not guarded one possession, he's not passed one ball, he's not shot one ball‑‑ well, that's a lie, because he's holding his hand up like this yesterday, and he's catching the ball, and he's shooting it like this holding his hand up in the air with his cast on. But he hasn't participated."
"And yet there are people that say that he can play. But there's only two people, three, four, five people that are going to make this decision: first one's Kendall, second one would be his mom and dad, and the third and fourth would be the doctors, and the fifth would be me, and I think it's going to have to be unanimous and I just don't see that happening."
For the Tar Heel players, the prospect of trying to get to the Final Four without Marshall is certainly daunting, but it's not something they shy away from.
"We would love to have him (Marshall). He's the best point guard in the nation in my eyes, so I mean it would be great loss for us, but we also have a lot of great players who can step up and play for him," said ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller.
"We don't know anything yet. We have been at practice today (Thursday), he did some dummy stuff, tried to do some shooting and stuff. So we don't know anything yet. It will be very interesting. I think tomorrow's shoot around is when we're really going to assess him and see if he's going to play or not," Zeller continued.
"We didn't want things bad things to happen over the past few years, but it has and we have overcame it. And I think that's one great thing about this team is overcoming adversities. That's what we have been doing since we have been here," added ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson.
Henson's wrist injury quickly was pushed to the background after Marshall's setback, but Henson reiterated Thursday that he's continuing to get back closer to full strength.
"It's getting better every day," Henson said about his own ailing wrist. "It feels a lot better than it did last week at this time. I'm resting it, icing it, and just getting it better."
Should the Tar Heels find themselves playing Ohio without Marshall as is widely expected, Coach Williams will have a few scenarios at his disposal.
One natural scenario would be inserting freshman backup point guard Stilman White in the lineup, but don't be surprised if senior Justin Watts also gets considerable work at the position. Watts handled the backup point role more than capably at times for UNC during the recent ACC Tournament in Atlanta.
"Stilman, yeah, he's the guy that's going to play. Stilman and J. Watts. And as long as their heart is not beating so fast that they pass out before they get to the court, I think we'll still have five guys out there starting," Williams said.
Another potential option for the Tar Heels is, to coin a phrase, 'Going Big.'
UNC could potentially try at certain times in the game to play Zeller, Henson, and James Michael McAdoo against the Bobcats, with some combination of two players among Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, and Harrison Barnes bringing the ball up the court.
A Zeller/Henson/McAdoo combination in the low post could be lethal for the smaller, less athletic Bobcats, who have won two NCAA Tournament games so far over Michigan and South Florida through precise shooting and solid defense, but without having had to play a team with so much talent in the low post.
Having some time this week to prepare for possible scenarios without Marshall may prove to be beneficial for the Tar Heels once they take the floor tonight.
"I think thankfully it (Marshall's injury) happened on the second game of the weekend, so we had all week to try to prepare, try to change things. And it will be interesting how the dynamics play out tomorrow night. But it was nice to be able to have three or four days to be able to prepare and kind of change things," said Zeller.
Even if White and/or Watts winds up playing heavily at the point with all their inexperience, the good thing is that the Tar Heels are still chock full of McDonalds All-Americans at essentially every other position, and those guys didn't forget how to play the game in the last couple of days.
"We have thrown him (White) out there in a couple of minutes in some big games and he's done fine. And he comes back over to the bench and just sort of sits down and he's got this little grin on his face, and somebody will say, 'Good job.' And he will say, 'What did I do?' I mean he's kind of the youthful anyone's that I think will help him this week," Williams said.
Fortunately for UNC, Williams sees something in White that gives him confidence.
Even if he's not Kendall Marshall -- who the heck is? -- White has shown a certain level of toughness that gives his coach faith in throwing him out there against Ohio.
"There really is a huge contrast (between White and Marshall)," Williams said. "I think Kendall Marshall is the best point guard I've ever had in several areas. One is after the other team scores, he can attack with the basketball and pitch ahead and we can lay it up while everybody is still celebrating hoping their girlfriend is watching them run back down the court. He can attack you after you score better than anybody. He pitch's ahead better than anybody I ever had. He thinks past first, second, third, fourth, maybe not fifth, but at least the top four."
And Stilman is like a little Colt running around out there. Kendall thinks three plays ahead. Stilman's trying to still trying to think he's got both shoes tied. It's the kind of thing that there's such a contrast. But Stilman's got a little toughness to him. I mean he really does. Like i say, he's wacko and maybe it's the wacko to the extent that he doesn't realize it, but I like the toughness."
"He's willing to try to make plays," Williams added about White. "And he's sort of, you know, faced by a lot of things, which in this moment I think that's good. You know, I don't worry any more about Stilman tomorrow than I would if he was going to play two minutes. Because he's still wacko. I worry about a lot of things with him, but I mean, he's a unique kid and a neat kid."
While the odds don't look great for a Marshall sighting Friday night on the court in the Edward Jones Dome, don't rule out a possible Willis Reed moment at some point over the weekend.
Bottom line -- Marshall wants to play. Obviously. But how much pain can he withstand?
That's the million dollar question that could dictate not only whether Marshall plays over the weekend, but also whether the Tar Heels can advance to another Final Four.
"My inclination is (Friday) , like say, if he (Marshall) comes running in and jumps down and does all those pushups or something, then my idea is going to change tomorrow. And I've got what our doctors are saying and I've got another orthopedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist says, 'Oh, yeah, he can play.' But I'm thinking that guy hasn't even seen his X‑ray," Williams said.
"There's so much -- such a broad expanse of ideas out there -- and it hasn't been the answer that you wanted all week, but it's the truth. I do not know (if Marshall will play over the weekend). I just know the kid tells me he can't brush his teeth yet, how the dickens can he play basketball game if he can't brush his teeth? I mean, he can go out there with bad breath, but you still got to be able to play the dadgum game."
It's a little unfortunate that Marshall's injury has taken a lot of the attention away from what should be a fascinating example of March Madness -- a No. 1 seed and prohibitive Final Four favorite against the ultimate Cinderella, a No. 13 seed from a mid-major conference in Ohio playing its best basketball at just the right time.
But when the ball tips Friday night, everything will fall back into its proper place.
"I don't think it ever gets to be old hat (playing in a Regional)," Williams said. "I love the games. I love the pageantry of the NCAA tournament. A lot of other things that go along with it. The game of basketball, in college basketball, people are emotional about it. And I love that. And to me, it's North Carolina playing Ohio. Big school/little school, big guy/little guy, ugly guy/good looking guy, doesn't make any difference. We get to play each other out there on the court."