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Feb. 8, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Maybe his jump shot isn’t quite where he wants it, but Dexter Strickland has something even more important going for him these days.
North Carolina’s senior guard is one of the steadiest players on a young team, playing solid basketball one year after he had surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. It has been a hard road back, but Strickland has put in the necessary work.
“My first game in front of a crowd was the day I told myself ‘I’m going to be all right,’” Strickland said. “I got the ball in a couple of transitions, made some layups, started dunking off of two feet. I felt confident.
“Confidence is the best thing you can have with an injury. I struggled with it in the beginning but that’s what I have a lot of now and my knee is not bothering me at all.”
In the second half of the ACC season, the Tar Heels need Strickland’s all-around ability – speed and scoring in transition, knocking down jump shots, rebounding, passing, defending. Although their overall record of 16-6 is a disappointment to many observers, they are 6-3 in league play, tied for third place with Virginia.
UNC has a chance to boost its resume Saturday with a game at Miami, 9-0 in ACC play. Strickland believes his team can become one to be reckoned with.
“I think the most important thing is to know our roles, have full comprehension of what we have to do and execute what coach (Roy Williams) wants,” he said. “I’m pretty sure coach knows what he’s talking about – he’s won two national championships and he knows what it takes to get the job done.
“We have a great team and I think our potential is very high. We’re a young team and we still have a lot to learn. We need to go out there and focus on getting the job done and playing our hardest and we can go a long way.”
During his career Strickland, who is from Rahway, N.J., has usually been surrounded by all-star talent. Statistically, he has been a complementary player, contributing timely baskets with the ability to have a big game here and there – 18 points against Rutgers as a freshman and 18 against Texas as a sophomore.
He averaged 5.4 points his first year, improved to 7.5 points as a sophomore and continued at 7.5 points last season while shooting a robust 57 percent. This year he’s averaging 7.7 points although shooting just 42.2 percent.
Since he has always played with capable scorers, Strickland found other ways to be valuable and become a fixture in the starting lineup since his sophomore year. He’s second on the team in assists, second in turnovers, helps with rebounds and plays stellar defense.
Strickland’s junior season was cut short after 19 games when he suffered the knee injury against Virginia Tech on Jan. 19. He screamed in pain – and fear – when it happened, but was able to walk to the bench and then to the locker room. He thought he might actually be all right.
“As soon as they told me I tore my ACL I just broke down,” he said. “I was in tears.”
Surgery was performed on Feb. 9. Teammate Leslie McDonald had the same injury the previous summer and sat out the 2011-12 season. Strickland watched him rehab, so he knew he would have to go through the same process.
“That was a scare for me also,” he said, “just the fear of not being as fast, not jumping as high, just little stuff like that stuck in the back of my mind that made me even more nervous.”
For a week after surgery all he could do was stay in bed and put his legs on a machine that helped rotate his knee. Then he was able to get up and move around and eventually he started rehab, strengthening the knee and getting the rotation back.
“I think the hardest part was sleeping,” he said. “I probably got a maximum of three or four hours every night. I had to wake up every two hours to take my painkillers. It was horrible.”
He stayed with it and improved every day, although when workouts started in September he still had a lingering limp. When Williams, fresh from cancer surgery himself, saw Strickland, doubts cropped up.
“You know, he’s really come a long way,” Williams said. “If everybody had seen him in September, you would have been questioning whether he would be able to play this whole season because he ran with a limp when we were trying to do the conditioning and he was just way out of whack.”
But Williams said he never considered holding Strickland out this season. Instead, the staff pulled him out of conditioning drills and pickup games and had the trainers work with him to get his knee back in shape. Sure enough, when the season started on Nov. 9 against Gardner-Webb, Strickland was in the starting lineup.
“I’m a competitive dude and if someone tells me I can’t do it, I’m going to try my best to prove them wrong,” he said. “I had been limping for six or seven months, so when I was out there running my mind was telling me to limp. It wasn’t because I was hurting; I wasn’t used to running.
“I had to tell myself, ‘Just run. Stop limping and just run. Nothing is wrong with you, nothing is going to happen.’ I think anybody who has torn his ACL will tell you that after you’re back, the hardest thing to overcome is that mental stage. That was a tough thing for me but I got over it.”
Strickland said he considers himself the hardest worker on the team, so just because he feels fine it doesn’t mean he has slacked off. He’s constantly working on his shooting, dribbling and conditioning. When freshman point guard Marcus Paige comes out of the game it’s Strickland who moves over to handle those chores.
“It’s good to have him on the court when I make the change and give Marcus a breather,” Williams said. “To have him already be in the game and to be able to slide over there to that point guard spot, I think that’s helpful to us. His-assist error ratio (nearly three assists for every turnover) has been really good.”
Against Virginia Tech, Strickland was the primary defender on Erick Green, the ACC’s leading scorer (25.5 points per game), and helped hold him to 16 points on 7-of-21 shooting.
“It’s the first time this year I’ve said, ‘man, he may be back to 100 percent defensively,’” Williams said. “So we need him to do that, and I hope that he can do it on a consistent basis for us now.”
Strickland said it’s frustrating not to have his shot falling with regularity, but he tries not to dwell on it and believes he’ll have a breakout scoring game soon.
“That’s just the points category,” he said. “I know I can be more aggressive grabbing those rebounds, guarding the other team’s best player, being a guy on the court you can depend on getting the stops, getting that steal, giving my teammates the ball, doing all the little stuff that counts. As long as my team is winning I’ll be out there giving them my all and that’s what counts with me.”
He will leave most of the scoring to players like James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and McDonald.
And speaking of Hairston, no one was happier to see him return to the court Tuesday against Wake Forest. It was Strickland’s elbow that inadvertently connected with Hairston’s head, causing him to miss a couple of games with a concussion.
“Everybody gave me a tough time because of what happened, him running into my elbow,” Strickland said. “He’s a great player, a great person off the court. He’s like my brother. I’m very glad that he’s back.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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