Strickland fills void for Carolina
By Aaron Beard
CHAPEL HILL — Dexter Strickland doesn’t seem to mind that all the attention goes to his touted North Carolina teammates. The sophomore knows the Tar Heels will have a tough time winning in the NCAA tournament without him.
Strickland is the team’s top perimeter defender who frequently draws the opponent’s top scorer. He’s started every game but one, yet also serves as the backup point guard for a team with just eight scholarship players heading into Friday’s game against Marquette in the round of 16.
And he’s doing that while playing through a right knee injury that might require surgery after the season.
“I’m going to do whatever I have to do to contribute to winning,” Strickland said Tuesday. “Whatever position I have to play, I’m going to do that to help my team win.”
Strickland is averaging about seven points per game for the Tar Heels (28-7), the No. 2 seed in the East Regional. He was the only player among North Carolina’s starting lineup not to make one of the all-Atlantic Coast Conference teams this year.
But with freshman star Harrison Barnes (team-high 15.5 points) and 7-footer Tyler Zeller (15.2), the Tar Heels don’t need Strickland to shoot a bunch of 3-pointers or score a lot of points.
His value in Sunday’s second-round win against Washington showed up most in the stats of the player he defended. He pestered Washington’s Isaiah Thomas — who came in averaging about 17 points and shooting 45 percent — into 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting in Sunday’s second-round victory in Charlotte.
“It’s hard because one game we’re asking him to chase a guy around screens like crazy, and the next we’re telling him he’s got to stay in front of the basketball and the guy is quick as lightning,” coach Roy Williams said.
Strickland also came through with a pair of free throws with 5.4 seconds left that gave the Tar Heels the final margin, capping a day when he finished with 13 points, six rebounds and no turnovers in 29 minutes.
“I think he’s the X-factor,” freshman point guard Kendall Marshall said. “A lot of things that Dex does doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. He keeps getting these tough matchups but he goes out there and competes for 40 minutes.”
Strickland has been at his best this season when he’s driving to be the basket or using his speed in the open court as part of Williams’ transition offense. He’s shown flashes of explosive leaping ability, too, from a drive-and-dunk that punctuated the win against Duke in the regular-season finale to leaping over the Blue Devils’ Kyle Singler for a jaw-dropping dunk that was waved off after a charge call in the ACC tournament final.
His role grew after Larry Drew II quit the team, forcing Strickland to take on more of the ball-handling duties again after playing the point as a freshman. He’s played through a partially torn meniscus in his right knee suffered in February, postponing surgery that would have ended his season.
Strickland said the knee feels fine right now and he hasn’t decided if he’ll have surgery after the season.
“The kids love him, they gravitate toward him,” Williams said. “They understand he hasn’t had the kind of accolades and honors everyone else has had, but yet they understand how important he is to our team. Nobody thinks they can chase him down from behind. Nobody enjoys him guarding them. Nobody enjoys trying to stop him when he tries to take it to the basket.”