It might be seven years later, but Harrison Barnes believes that his 2011-12 North Carolina Tar Heels would have won the title if not for Marshall’s injury.
After an Elite Eight loss, North Carolina returned all five starters to Chapel Hill to form one of the preseason favorites to cut down the net in March in March of 2012.
Kendall Marshall. Dexter Strickland. Harrison Barnes. John Henson. Tyler Zeller.
The best starting unit in the country led the Tar Heels to a 32-6 record that included a 14-2 record in the ACC where they finished first in the conference. Of those six losses, one of them came against a University of Kentucky team led by Anthony Davis where Davis blocked a Henson jump shot at the end of the game to beat UNC.
“He blocked Henson, we should have called a timeout. I think Marquis Teague missed two free throws. We were right down the stretch their at Rupp,” Barnes said as we reminisced about that matchup.
“It was a battle and I thought we were going to see them again in the championship,” Barnes said.
Set up on the opposite side of the bracket, destiny seemed to be pointing towards a rematch in the National Championship Game.
Kentucky, a number one seed, was led by Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and others as they cruised to the title game.
North Carolina, a number one seed themselves, faced off against a Creighton team in round two where they won they game by 14 points, but not without some heartbreaking news.
With 10:56 left in the game, Marshall drove the lane for a lay-up when he was fouled and fell to the ground. In the fall, Marshall would break his right wrist and alter everything in college basketball.
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Marshall was the leader of the offense on that Tar Heel team as he had a 3.48 assist-to-turnover ratio that was the second best in ACC history, per ESPN. Marshall averaged a near 10 assists per game and led the entire country in total assists.
North Carolina would be without Marshall for the rest of the tournament and would lose in the Elite Eight to Kansas.
For a Tar Heel team that had their sights set on a rematch with Kentucky and National Championship, everything was drastically changed by the Marshall injury.
If Marshall didn’t get hurt, would North Carolina have won the title?
“I believe so,” Barnes said when I talked to him about that special UNC team.
“We were a tight-knit unit. This last team that won it, we were able to see how close they were. I feel like we were very similar and close. I felt like we had a good shot to win it. Obviously Kendall gets hurt and we were unable to make it to the Final Four. If he was out there, we would have won it all.”
Anthony Davis and Kentucky would go on to win the title and fans of college basketball never got their rematch.
Some would say that Kentucky would have still won, but don’t say that to Barnes and the rest of that North Carolina team.