Entering the season, a freshman point guard was expected to start for Duke against North Carolina.
Tyler Thornton isn’t that point guard.
But since Kyrie Irving’s toe injury, the Blue Devils’ other freshman point guard has gradually taken on a larger role, leading to the first start of his career last week against Maryland. Now, Thornton will start at the point for Duke in arguably the biggest college basketball game so far this year—and he’ll do so against a man he calls his “brother.”
After Larry Drew II’s struggles and eventual decision to transfer away from the Tar Heel program, Kendall Marshall has taken over the starting point guard duties for North Carolina. Marshall, himself a freshman, played high school basketball in the same league as Thornton, and the two even went to school together in the eighth grade.
“In the summer time we played together,” Thornton said of the eighth grade year. “I ran the one, he ran the two, and we killed it.”
But after that summer, Thornton and Marshall were more often on opposing sides of the game. The pair played four times in Thornton’s sophomore year at Gonzaga High School—and Thornton’s team won all four matchups.
Behind Thornton’s 17 points and six assists Gonzaga also defeated Marshall’s Bishop O’Connell High School in the pair’s final prep matchup. The win capped a dominant high school record for Thornton over Marshall—the eventual Blue Devil topped the Tar Heel in six of their 10 contests.
“He ended my high school career,” Marshall said. “It’s something I always think about.”
The pair’s history will be on display tonight as the game tips off with them both on the floor. Thornton hopes his past experience with his friend will benefit him.
“I know his game pretty well, the kind of moves he likes to make,” Thornton said of Marshall. “Coach wants me to pick him up full court pressure. Last couple of games they’ve let him just run the offense, so Coach wants me to disrupt him.”
That major duty of Thornton’s—disrupting Marshall on offense—highlights the differences in the two point guards. Thornton is a defensive stopper who brings energy and enthusiasm to the court. Marshall, on the other hand, starts at the point guard slot because of his offense.
“Me, I take pride in passing and distributing,” the Tar Heel said.
Still, the differences and the rivalry of the pair will be a mere subplot amidst the theatre that is a Duke-North Carolina game. That national exposure and pressure will provide both young point guards an opportunity to mature.
“To start in a game like this, he can really grow,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Thornton. “If [Irving] hadn’t got hurt it would’ve been his first North Carolina game too. Now it’s a different one that gets that opportunity.”
Marshall, for one, hopes Thornton doesn’t enjoy his opportunity. After losing to Thornton six times in high school, Marshall is ready for revenge.
“I’ve always told him that in college, I’d finish out on top,” he said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.