CHAPEL HILL — Kendall Marshall has done it so often now that his teammates at North Carolina no longer are surprised. They no longer are awed by Marshall's ability to pass a basketball, to thread it deftly through, over or around a crowd of defenders.
"Yeah," sophomore guard Reggie Bullock said with a smile. "I kind of expect it from him now."
The No. 1 Tar Heels spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas, where tonight at the Orleans Arena they will play South Carolina in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational (10 p.m., ESPN2). The trip represents another chance for them to grow on the road.
Yet four games into a season that carries great expectations, the most significant lesson North Carolina has learned could be this: Marshall just might be more valuable than previously assumed.
Marshall was expected to be the catalyst for a Tar Heels' offense that doesn't lack for scoring options. He was expected to set up easy shots down low for the likes of John Henson and Tyler Zeller and to help Harrison Barnes find open shots and room to penetrate from the wing.
Early this season, though, Marshall has made it look easier than even the most optimistic Tar Heels player might have imagined.
"There are so many passes that I wouldn't make, he makes," Bullock said. "And he (can) just needle it through and get it to John and (Zeller), (and to) us looking out on the wing. That's one of the great things about playing with Kendall."
In four victories decided by double-digit margins against Michigan State, UNC Asheville, Mississippi Valley State and Tennessee State, Marshall averaged 10.8 assists. He left the 102-69 victory against Tennessee State on Tuesday night with about 4 1/2 minutes to play, after accumulating 15 assists.
When Marshall arrived on the bench, he told coach Roy Williams he needed just three more assists to tie Raymond Felton's 2003 record of 18 in one game.
"He must be a scoreboard reader or something," Williams said. "... I went down to him and I said, 'So I take you out after six minutes, if you were going to average one a minute you'd already have 36. We wouldn't be having this conversation."
He was on pace for a while.
Through four minutes, Marshall had four assists, and they came in a variety of ways. One led Barnes to hit a 3-pointer. One came on a layup for Zeller. And the other two set up dunks by Henson.
Four minutes, four assists. Outside of Marshall, no other North Carolina player is averaging four assists per game.
He didn't tie or set a school record Tuesday night, but his performance represented the third time he'd finished a game with at least 15 assists. No other player in North Carolina history has had more than one 15-assist game.
The Tar Heels' 32 assists Tuesday were the most they've had during the Williams era. Only nine of the 41 shots that North Carolina made from the field were unassisted, and most of those 41 shots came after Marshall or another player made an extra pass to set up an easier attempt.
"I think that just takes the backbone out of the other team," Marshall said this week.
He sat surrounded by reporters inside the North Carolina players' lounge at the Smith Center, wearing a shirt that said, "I am a playmaker." On a team with no shortage of them - five Tar Heels are averaging at least 9.0 points per game, led by Barnes' 17.0 a contest - none have been as valuable as Marshall.
The Tar Heels, who Saturday night in Las Vegas will play either Southern Cal or Nevada-Las Vegas, have yet to identify a capable backup to Marshall. Williams spoke Tuesday night as if he didn't want the success going to Marshall's head. He criticized Marshall's defense and mentioned his struggles in perimeter shooting.
Then Williams stated the obvious: "He's pretty valuable to us, guys. He's really valuable."