On Replacing Dexter Strickland: UNC Passes Its First Exam

Posted by rtmsf on January 27th, 2012

Matt Poindexter is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the UNC-NC State game in Chapel Hill Thursday night.

After Dexter Strickland tore his ACL in the North Carolina’s win at Virginia Tech last week, many Tar Heel fans worried Roy Williams wouldn’t be able to fill the junior’s spot as starting shooting guard and backup point guard without a severe disruption. Reggie Bullock would likely move into the starting lineup and Stilman White—a freshman usually relegated to playing at the end of blowouts—would see more important minutes as Kendall Marshall’s primary backup. Other names were tossed around: Could Harrison Barnes be a point-forward? Former UNC star Eric Montross thought Justin Watts, the team’s all-purpose reserve, should run the team when Marshall needs water breaks. Williams even suggested the Tar Heels may go without any point guard at all sometimes. “We’ll be looking for anything else we possibly could have,” Williams said. But for this Tar Heel team, “anything else” means more than just rearranging the depth chart. Kendall Marshall is taking a mind-and-body approach now that Strickland isn’t available. “One thing I’m trying to do different is work on my breathing throughout the game. I’m not letting my highs get too high in my emotions because that can really take the energy out of you,” Marshall said after Thursday’s 74-55 win over North Carolina State.

How Will UNC Handle the Loss of Dexter Strickland?

Instead of simply playing White more, Roy Williams is trying to surround the young point guard with as much offensive firepower as possible when he steps onto the court. In previous games, White most often played with UNC’s inexperienced second team or with walk-ons in the waning minutes. Against NC State, White had Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes to pass to when he entered with 12:34 left in the first half. When White relieved Marshall again with 4:28 to go in the half, he joined Zeller, Barnes, John Henson, and Bullock on the floor. By substituting with White at those moments—each just before a media time out—Williams orchestrated longer rests for Marshall.

Despite totally dominating NC State, UNC still has much to figure out before Strickland may be adequately replaced. When the 6-foot, 160-pound White was on defense, NC State immediately isolated their guards against him, a strategy future opponents are sure to use. Marshall will at some point get into foul trouble. Strickland’s absence was noticeable on UNC’s fast break, where his speed and leaping ability are unmatched by any other Tar Heel. UNC’s substitution pattern is still a work in progress as well. “I screwed [the rotations] up a couple of times,” Williams said, “it was hard for me, trying to figure out how I was going to do it. I knew I wanted to manage Kendall’s minutes around the time outs, and I think I did that, but other than that I didn’t do a very good job of it.”

With two games in the next four days, North Carolina won’t have much practice time to smooth out their new system. And while Atlantic Coast Conference games aren’t ideal venues for experimentation, the Tar Heels should have some room for error in their upcoming meetings with Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. If Roy Williams sets his rotation, Stilman White proves himself reliable, and Kendall Marshall masters the art of Zen breathing, UNC may be able to absorb Strickland’s injury better than initially expected.

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