Consider five trademark Strickland plays from Tuesday's night game.
- A hanging-in-the-air, slightly-longer-than-a-layup-and-slightly-off-balance driving bank shot in transition, a play in which Strickland took it straight to the defender and confidently finished.
- A pick set on John Henson's man to assure he was free for an alley-oop dunk from Kendall Marshall coming out of a first half time out.
- A leap high in the air into the backcourt on a defensive inbounds play resulting in a deflection, a play that didn't create a turnover but did win some pleased applause from Roy Williams.
- A nice drive and dish to Tyler Zeller for a dunk to open the second half, setting Carolina on the way to a quick 6-0 start that put this game beyond all doubt.
- Finally, with Carolina up 20 and just a few minutes to play, racing into the backcourt to intercept a long Hurricane pass and prevent a layup.
Most Carolina games against reasonable quality opposition follow a familiar script. Teams are generally able to hang with the Tar Heels the first eight to ten minutes, when everyone is fresh and non-shooting fouls just result in a side out. Then, sometime in the middle third of the half, the Heels hit a couple of shots in a row or get a couple of run outs and a little bit of separation is established. Finally in the last few minutes of the half, Carolina pushes the lead to double-digit territory by converting free throws in the bonus and by finding more opportunities to run against tiring and increasingly frustrated opponents.
That's a script Carolina fans should be happy to take, and it played out just about like that on Tuesday night. But the script doesn't work if there is not solid defensive effort all the way through, or if Carolina at any point gets frustrated and gets away from good shot selection and patient but aggressive decision making. Being a little frustrated at being only up by a few points is a lot different than suddenly finding yourself down eight or ten points, with the other team gaining confidence and belief.
This is where Strickland is particularly important—his level of effort is a constant, he is an effective defender and rebounder, and he can put pressure on defenses in transition with his rather uncanny ability to get through traffic all the way to the basket. Equally important, he just does not make nearly as many mistakes with the ball as he did as a younger player.
Part of that improvement of course is more disciplined shot selection. It takes a lot of character for a two-guard on a major college team to accept that his shooting the three pointer just isn't a net benefit to the team. (It also takes some guts for such a player's coach to be comfortable playing a non-shooting shooting guard.) That observation was probably the thought motivating the reporter who recently asked Strickland if he could be this team's Jackie Manuel.
It wasn't an unreasonable question, but I loved Strickland's answer:
"I'm not Jackie Manuel. I'm Dexter Strickland."
The New Jersey junior is exactly right. Manuel, in his final two years, had the job of being the defensive stopper, and while he did collect some points through athleticism, rare was the possession—in halfcourt or transition—where anyone felt particularly comfortable with the ball in Manuel's hands.
In contrast, Strickland is an all-around player, and has become quite proficient offensively. He handles the ball well, is often brilliant in transition, and is shooting the ball well from up to 17 feet. Here's the difference between the two scenarios: while Manuel's red light from three-point range amounted to a wholesale redefinition of his role into nearly exclusively a defensive player, Strickland's red light from 3 is actually a way to make him a better and more efficient offensive player.
The numbers bear this out. In his first two seasons, Strickland shot 44.6 percent from the field with eight made threes each season, for an effective field goal percentage of 46.8 percent. After Tuesday's stellar performance, Strickland is now shooting 56.7 percent from the field on the year, which when you add in his zero three pointers in the season still totals 56.7 percent effective shooting.
In other words, the non-shooting shooting guard has suddenly become one of the more efficient players on the team in terms of effective use of the ball. This isn't a question of him taking only easy shots either—Strickland's points per minute played ratio is up 15 percent so far this season compared to last. His ball handling has also continued to improve, with an assist-turnover ratio this season now up to 1.68:1, compared to 1.52:1 as a sophomore and 1.16:1 as a freshman.
To be sure, even the remodeled Strickland is not likely to land on any All-American teams or the cover of Sports Illustrated. But he has made himself one of the most dependable performers on the Tar Heels—making it far more likely that he and his teammates end up someday with one of those rings Jackie Manuel has.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.