Big moment for UNC's backup point guard

When UNC plays Ohio tonight Sweet 16, little-known player may run the show

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 23, 2012 

— Stilman White knows what people think about him – at least people who haven’t seen him play basketball but who might make assumptions about him.

“You definitely hear it in public and all that stuff,” said White, the 6-foot freshman point guard at North Carolina. “But it’s all just funny. I guess if I were them, I’d be asking the same thing – you know, who’s that little white kid out there?”

When the Tar Heels play Ohio tonight at the Edward Jones Dome in the NCAA tournament Midwest regional semifinals, White is likely to be UNC’s starting point guard. White stands a good chance to start in place of Kendall Marshall, who on Sunday suffered a broken right wrist in the Tar Heels’ 87-73 victory against Creighton.

“I have a strong, strong inclination that he is not going to play,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Thursday of Marshall, who on Monday had surgery to repair a fractured scaphoid bone in his right wrist. “… he has not participated in one play since last Sunday when I took him out of the game.”

Marshall’s injury has interrupted what had been a historic season. His 351 assists are a single-season ACC record, and his average of 9.75 assists per game ranks among the top 10 in college basketball history. With Marshall, the Tar Heels’ offense is feared because of its speed and power.

Without him, though, North Carolina will rely on a combination of White and senior Justin Watts, both of whom have combined to play about 11 minutes per game this season. White is the purer point guard of the two, a former standout at Hoggard High in Wilmington, whereas Watts has been a valuable utility player.

Watts and White are unheralded and, for the most part, unknown outside of their own locker room.

“I’m not feeling any pressure,” Watts said on Thursday. “I’m just trying to prepare each day this week in practice, and be prepared to step up if my number is called on and try to help the team and contribute any way I can.”

The thought is typical of the laidback, subdued Watts. He likes to avoid the spotlight but couldn’t on Thursday, not with the glare of television cameras surrounding him.

Watts has averaged barely more than 1 point per game this season, yet he spent nearly 30 minutes on Thursday answering questions about what he envisioned for himself on Friday night – about how he’d handle the moment.

“Of any member of our team, he’s probably the lowest key,” sophomore forward Harrison Barnes said. “So he probably doesn’t like all the media and stuff. But he’s done a great job of leading this team.

“I think it’s nice that he’s finally getting a little attention.”

Watts and White have more in common than modest statistics. The opportunity to play at UNC came late in the recruiting process for both. Watts, a dominant player during his days at Jordan High in Durham, considered playing at Illinois and Stanford but didn’t particularly like either option.

But North Carolina’s coaching staff, meanwhile, liked Watts the more they evaluated him.

“He had a wide range of skills,” said Tar Heels assistant coach Jerod Haase, who helped recruit Watts. “He had good size, good athleticism. I thought his shot looked good. He handled the ball well for his size … and then once we got to know him as a kid, he was just top-notch.”

Watts decided to come to UNC, knowing that he might never have a chance to start and that he’d likely spend his four years as a reserve. For White, the chance to play for the Tar Heels materialized unexpectedly, and quickly.

He had scholarship offers from UNC Wilmington, Utah State and BYU.

“This last year has been sort of an amazing, amazing thing,” said Brett Queen, who coached White at Hoggard. “To think about going from begging schools to recruit him to ending up being on a team that’s in the Sweet 16. So [it has been] a phenomenal process for him.”

Queen said most schools were turned off by White’s intent to spend two years on a Mormon mission.

With a need for a point guard, North Carolina began to recruit White well into his senior season at Hoggard. And then, all of a sudden, he was bound for Chapel Hill. During a rare quiet moment on Thursday, when he didn’t happen to be surrounded by a throng of media, White said he figured he would come to North Carolina and spend his freshman season learning.

He looked forward to being around some of the older Tar Heels, and to finding some kind of niche, he said.

“What could happen this weekend,” White said. “I definitely didn’t expect. But you know, you’ve got to be ready for whatever.”

White’s playing time increased earlier this season, after Dexter Strickland suffered a season-ending knee injury. Barnes joked recently that he and his teammates were worried White might suffer an anxiety attack and pass out on the court. Now, though, White is calmer, more confident.

That still hasn’t stopped the doubters, or the jokes. Williams on Thursday described White as “so wacko” and said he’s appointed a team manager to make sure White has his ID card at all times, so that he can get into the building.

“Kendall thinks three plays ahead,” Williams said, comparing the injured Marshall to White. “Stilman’s trying to still trying to make sure he’s got both shoes tied.”

During the Tar Heels’ 87-73 victory against Creighton on Sunday in the third round of the NCAA tournament, White was on the court when he overhead a Creighton player ask North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo a question.

“One guy on Creighton asked James Michael if I was a walk-on or a scholarship kid,” White said.

By the end of tonight, there could be a new way to describe White: as a starter for a North Carolina team that still believes, even without Marshall, it can complete its goal of winning a national championship.

CARTER: 829-8944

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