When a mid-season departure by a junior with more experience than anyone else in the starting line-up is a turning point in the season, it is not usually a good thing.
But for the North Carolina men's basketball team it was the best thing that could have happened.
Larry Drew II, a junior and son of Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew, started the 2010-11season as the starting point guard. In his sophomore season, his first as a starter, he was the target of much criticism as the Tar Heels found themselves in the NIT after the team's worst season since 2002.
On Jan. 16, the Tar Heels took a 20-point drumming from Georgia Tech in Atlanta -- it would be the last time Larry Drew II started a game in a North Carolina uniform.
Freshman Kendall Marshall took over as the starter and the Tar Heels never looked back. Four games after Drew was benched he left the team and released a statement saying that he had decided to transfer.
In the first game after Drew left the program, Marshall handed out a UNC freshman record 16 assists in a win over Florida State. North Carolina is 12-2 since Drew's departure and captured the regular season ACC championship on the Smith Center floor. The two losses came at the hands of Duke.
"I don't remember when we had the meeting, but we had a meeting and I think everybody just started -- I mean, we all started, our team chemistry got better," Tyler Zeller said Thursday. "We all pulled together. And then I think throughout the whole season we've done a great job of just supporting each other and being confident in what everybody can do."
But Marshall isn't the only freshman making noise for the Tar Heels. In fact, in the eyes of the ACC, he's not even the best freshman on the team. Teammate Harrison Barnes, the 2011 ACC Rookie of the Year, was the first freshman ever selected to the first team pre-season All-America list and after a slow start, he lived up to his billing.
Barnes averages a team-high 15.5 points and leads the team with made three pointers, having knocked down 62 of them this season, two of them game winners in the state of Florida. Barnes is by far the Tar Heels' best clutch performer, whether it is last second threes or momentum swinging dunks, Barnes is "that dude."
All that aside, what could be most troubling for Marquette will be the long, lean and mean frontcourt of Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Zeller averages 15 points a game and is deadly from the line as the Tar Heel's best free throw shooter. Zeller's go to move is the turn-around right hook from the block, it's just tough to stop a seven footer from making that shot -- because he's 7 feet tall.
John Henson, a 6-foot-10 sophomore with a 7-4 wingspan blocks and alters a lot of shots in the paint. Henson led the ACC with 113 blocks this season, 34 more than second-place Ty Walker of Wake Forest, earning him ACC defensive player of the year honors.
Coming off the bench for the North Carolina frontcourt will be Justin Knox, a grad student who transferred from Alabama. Knox has been a very useful addition to the roster, relieving Henson and Zeller, and has played dependable, mostly mistake-free minutes averaging almost five points in less than 15 minutes a game.
Sophomore Leslie McDonald has also been a major contributor off the bench as the Tar Heels best scoring reserve. A pure shooter, McDonald shoots just under 40 percent from the 3-point line and averages 7.2 points.
Let's be honest, Tar Heel nation was pulling for the Golden Eagles to upset Syracuse in the third round last weekend. Not just because Marquette was the higher seed, but because Boeheim's 2-3 zone would have been almost unbeatable for the Tar Heels.
Though UNC has the size to score in the paint and rebound against the 2-3, they simply do not have the kind of shooters that bring a team out of a zone. Look for Buzz Williams to use some zone sets to throw off the Tar Heels' offensive rhythm.
Though the Tar Heels have played their best basketball since Drew left, they are still a very young team. Only two players have seen NCAA playing time with the team -- Zeller and reserve Justin Watts. In the two losses to Duke, the Blue Devils pressured the young backcourt and pushed Marshall out to start the offense closer to the half-court line and forced him in to longer, more turnover-prone passes.
Zeller says tough and close games to open the tournament have made the Tar Heels a better team.
"That showed us how focused you have to be in the tournament," he said. "How important every play is just because you get up by 10 or 15 and then the other team makes a run at you and makes it very difficult. And you have to make sure that you stay focused all 40 minutes rather than having a lapse here or there."
Coach Roy Williams, now in his sixth season at UNC, will be looking to take his Tar Heels team to the Elite Eight for the fifth time. But like every other game this season, it will take key contributions from every player in his eight man rotation.