Learning on the Go

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- As the losses pile up, one must wonder where North Carolina's players' minds are, especially the freshmen.

In particular, where is Dexter Strickland 28 games into a season nobody figured would find the Tar Heels facing a possible last-place finish in the ACC?

Strickland, perhaps more than the four other newcomers, might feel a bit more responsibility for UNC's unfathomable fall from a perch it essentially owned for the previous five seasons. Naturally a shooting guard, the New Jersey native was asked by coach Roy Williams to back up starting point guard Larry Drew.

Strickland isn't exactly Curly Neal with the ball, so there have been more than a routine number of bizarre ball-handling sequences resulting in turnovers in his column. To say he's looked out of place at times would be an understatement.

"I think he's getting better," Williams said after Carolina's 77-67 loss to Florida State on Wednesday night at the Smith Center. "He's not getting better as fast as I want him to."

This isn't news to anyone who follows the Heels, nor is it groundbreaking information to Strickland, who has 55 assists against 50 turnovers on the season. He's well aware of how he's performed.

Strikingly mature for his age, he calmly articulated what he did wrong in the loss to the Seminoles. But he recognizes it wasn't a one-game thing for him or his team.

"So far, I don't think there's a game I have played to my full potential," Strickland deadpanned.

He's right. And what's so unique about those words, and some of the other interesting remarks he made in the players' lounge Wednesday night, is that there is an obvious disconnect between Strickland's frame of mind sitting there talking to a reporter 25 minutes after a game and when he's on the floor dealing with the pressure of ACC defenders.

Maybe his maturity and intelligence hasn't shined through so much when dealing with a double-team or on a three-on-two break when he inappropriately passes the ball to a big man not yet in position to do much with the ball. It does off the court, though, and that's why Strickland has a chance at being a success story. But it won't come without plenty of work – physically and mentally.

Add that Carolina has now lost 11 of its last 14 games and is essentially playing out the season after beginning the year ranked among the top 10, and the challenges that most UNC freshmen deal with seem like small potatoes to Strickland and his classmates.

And as a point guard, his game has been picked apart by fans on talk shows and Internet message boards. But it hasn't been studied by them like it has by Strickland. You know that fine tooth comb saying? It applies here.

"For me, (when I'm) afraid to make mistakes is when I make mistakes," he said. "Just being on the court thinking too much. You just have to come in again by yourself, work hard, practice even harder, watch tape; everything you can to help your game and try to help your team out."

Strickland feels responsibility for UNC's struggles, enough that while it weighs on him, it's also a motivating force. But perhaps most important is that he sees a light at the end of tunnel.

While it may not be clear when on the court, it is off of it, and eventually that can transfer. It did for former Tar Heel Shammond Williams, who also struggled as a backup point guard in his freshman season in 1995. But as a shooting guard and backup to Ed Cota at the point Williams became an All-ACC player, spent some time in the NBA and overseas and now resides in Chapel Hill.

Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson have also offered plenty of advice, but Williams' story is the one Strickland would like to emulate and the two have spent considerable time together this season.

"I never played the '1' as everybody knows," Strickland said. "It's been tough. I'm getting through it. As coach says, ‘To get to the next level you're going to have to know the point guard position,' and that's what I'm doing."

And he's also learning how to deal with adversity, fallen expectations, and a great deal about himself, which can bode well down the road as a Tar Heel.

Strickland hasn't graded out too well after most games, and he still gets rattled on the floor. But his disposition and resolve off the court remain strong.

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