Heels return to road vs. Texas
Dexter Strickland never played point guard in high school and has started once at that position during his four years at North Carolina. Yet the UNC senior is fourth in the ACC in assists at 5.0 per game entering today’s game at Texas (9 p.m., ESPN2).
Strickland has 26 assists and nine turnovers in the past three contests, including a career-best 10 assists in the Tar Heels’ game Saturday against East Carolina. UNC coach Roy Williams said he kept Strickland in at point guard at one point against the Pirates even though regular starter Marcus Paige was rested.
“You never know until you get into the crux of the season, but I’ve been really pleased by what he’s done,” Williams said. “He’s understanding things better all the time.”
Though Strickland never was the primary ballhandler at St. Patrick, where he once played behind former Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, he has backed up point guards Larry Drew II, Kendall Marshall and now Paige at UNC. That experience seems to be paying off now.
“Sometimes, the more you play and the more you’re put in a position, you just get more comfortable,” Williams said.
Like a true point guard, Strickland passed off the credit to his teammates, including shooters Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who combined for 39 points against the Pirates.
“It’s not me; it’s Reggie and P.J. and Leslie,” Strickland said. “I’m focused on getting them the ball at the right times, and they’re stepping up and making big shots.”
Still, Strickland said he had gained confidence over the years by learning Williams’ system and by watching film on Marshall, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul and his favorite player, Russell Westbrook, who has a similar background.
“(Westbrook)’s not naturally a point guard, but you can see how he can create for others due to his threat of driving and shooting,” Strickland said.
Strickland, who is in his third season as the starting shooting guard, had 192 assists and 141 turnovers entering the season for a ratio of 1.36. He’s improved that ratio to 3.13 this season, recording 50 assists to just 16 turnovers.
“I’d never played (point guard) before my freshman year, so I didn’t know what I had to do to get other players involved,” Strickland said. “Seeing how (Drew and Marshall) helped the team out, doing what they do, it was easy for me to do the same. I had the ability to do it, and I just had to get it done.”
But more than a passer, Strickland still thinks of himself as a slasher and a lockdown defender. His goal entering the season wasn’t to be No. 1 in assists but to be No. 1 in steals (he currently is fourth at 1.9 per game).
Even more importantly, he said: “I want my team to be (No.) 1.”
To do that, the Tar Heels (8-2) likely will need better production from Paige, who has 34 assists and 25 turnovers while shooting 37.1 percent through nine games. Paige missed the UAB game with a strained left shoulder, giving Strickland his first start at the point.
“This is a team that’s just finding their way through things,” said Williams, who said he was more frustrated after the six-point win over ECU than he had been in a long time.
UNC’s next test will come tonight in it’s only road game of a 40-day span, which started at Indiana on Nov. 27 and won’t end the Tar Heels’ ACC opener at Virginia on Jan. 6.
This is the second game in a four-year home-and-home series with the Longhorns, who will return to Chapel Hill next season. While UNC has four freshmen in the regular rotation, the Longhorns (6-4) are even younger — Texas starts three sophomores and two freshmen and has just two upperclassmen on the entire roster.
They have taken their lumps this season, even losing to Division II Chaminade on the opening day of the Maui Invitational. Still, the Longhorns lead the Big 12 in field-goal percentage defense (33.2) and are 86-3 in non-conference home games over the past nine seasons.
”They’re really a lot like us, just trying to find themselves,” said James Michael McAdoo, UNC’s leading scorer.