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January 22, 2012
Overcoming Strickland's absence
Dexter Strickland is an excellent defender, ultra-quick, with or without the ball, while running the floor on offense, but the area Carolina is going to miss him the most is as the backup to starting point guard Kendall Marshall.
"I'll have to do a good job of taking care of my body and play more minutes," Marshall said.
Strickland tore the right anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during UNC's victory at Virginia Tech and will miss the remainder of the 2011-12 season.
He started every game this season for the Tar Heels. The best perimeter defender on the team, Strickland's 25 steals tied for first on the team, and he was second in assists with 39.
Now he is gone.
He will be missed, but as always, one man's misfortunate is another's opportunity. In this case, sophomore Reggie Bullock came to Carolina from Kinston hoping to play shooting guard at 6 feet 7. Bullock has worked hard at getting in a defensive stance that will allow him to slide his feet and keep his opponent in front of him.
P.J. Hairston, a freshman from Greensboro, will get his share of time as the backup to Bullock. Hairston possesses a combination of strength, size (6-5) and quickness that should help him when he's on the court.
Nonetheless, the task will not be easy for either Bullock or Hairston. Some of the quickest athletes on the floor in college basketball player play the two-guard position.
In an even broader scheme, Strickland's absence will hurt the Tar Heels' team defense in that he will no longer be available to take the quickest player on the floor. More often than not, the quickest position to guard is the opposing point guard.
Marshall is an extraordinary point guard in many ways, but he is not the quickest. Strickland's presence enabled Coach Roy Williams to use Strickland to guard the point and have Marshall slide to two guard on defense.
This was by no means an automatic move. Williams let Marshall guard the point many nights, and use his length and strength to keep the opposing point from hurting the Tar Heels by penetrating and tossing the ball to open shooters.
Marshall said the key for the entire team is to not get ahead of itself and build on the second half of its 82-68 victory at Virginia Tech, in which the Tar Heels played their finest basketball of the season. They did this in spite of Strickland getting hurt.
"Effort and energy for 40 minutes," Marshall said. "What we're trying to do as a team is live in the here and now, not look to the future, not focus on the past. We want to focus on the task at hand. So that is the main focus of our team right now: living in the here and now."
There is another area in which the Tar Heels must compensate for Strickland's absence: his competitiveness. Strickland brought a toughness and competitive nature to the team that many of his teammates sometimes appear to lack.
Carolina (16-3, 3-1 in the ACC) no longer has the luxury of leaning on Strickland in this area.
Who knows, an embarrassing 90-57 loss at Florida State in the game prior to playing at Virginia Tech may be the hidden benefit in all of this.
Williams said the team had its best practices of the year between FSU and traveling to Virginia Tech. The players said that was one way to put it.
"One day I'll be talking to my kids and I'll tell them I got to meet Coach Roy Williams -- the real one," Marshall said. "He's a lot of smiles [with outsiders], but you don't want to get on his bad side."
The key, Marshall said, is avoid reverting to the bad habits created during a ho-hum non-conference schedule and using the second half against Virginia Tech as the foundation on which to build. UNC held the Hokies to 33 percent shooting in that second half, while shooting 51.7 percent from the floor.
Both teams had shot 40 percent from the floor in the first half.
"We should take it as a learning experience and try not to revert back," Marshall said.
Senior forward Tyler Zeller has seen every end of the spectrum during his career at Carolina. He's won a national championship and been relegated to the postseason NIT.
There cannot be anymore lethargic performances such as the one in Tallahassee, he said, especially now that a key component of the team will no longer be available.
"[Against FSU], we really didn't have the greatest effort," Zeller said. "We weren't really there. We weren't pushing it. In the first half [against Virginia Tech], we had the effort.
"We just weren't hitting shots. We knew we just had to pick it up a little bit. In the second half, we did."