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December 18, 2012Coming off last year's knee injury at Virginia Tech that prematurely ended his season, Dexter Strickland was one of the wild cards for North Carolina heading into something of a wild card year for the Tar Heels.
UNC knew they'd need Strickland for his senior leadership and his defense, and predictably, both of those have been there through 10 games.
Heading into Wednesday night's game at Texas, Strickland is currently second in the Atlantic Coast Conference in steals with 19, and fourth in steals per game (1.9).
But what's really been impressive is the fact that Strickland is currently fourth in the ACC in both assists (50) and assists per game (5.0).
"It's all coming along. I'm just letting the game come to me. We've got to get better, though," said Strickland during UNC's Tuesday afternoon press conference.
"He's understanding passes better a little early instead of holding it. The experience of playing a little bit (is helping him)," said UNC head coach Roy Williams of Strickland. "His assist-to-error ratio is really good. You never know until you get into the crux of the season, the middle of the league, but I'm pleased with what he's done."
Strickland has had a unique journey at North Carolina, starting out as Larry Drew's primary backup at point guard during the disastrous 2009-2010 season, and then serving as a key contributor at both point guard and the 'two' guard his sophomore and junior seasons.
He's still the starting 'two' on this year's UNC squad, but he's doing double duty as Marcus Paige's primary backup at the point and has been productive in that role.
"We played him some at the point guard his freshman year. We played him at the point guard his sophomore year. We played him at the point guard his junior year," said Williams of Strickland.
"I never played point guard before my freshman year (at UNC)," Strickland added. "I always saw myself as a combo guard, getting to the basket and stuff like that, and defense. I want to get steals also. I want my team to be No. 1 also. I'm going to continue to do what I do best."
For Strickland, the challenge at UNC has been figuring out not only how to help the team with his speed and defense, but to get everyone around him more active.
"I didn't know what to do to get other players involved. So being here four years, playing behind Larry and playing behind Kendall (Marshall) and seeing how they helped the team out doing what they do, it was easy for me to do the same," he said.
"It's a challenge. I don't want to say it's difficult, but I like how it's coming along. Just the transition from the 'two', and being the guy in transition who get steals to being the point guard and getting everybody involved. I'm just playing my game," Strickland continued.
"There's so many things you have to think about (playing the point)," added Williams.
"What (defensive) set you're in, what defense you've called and what you're going to call. It's a wide assortment of things you have to think about aside of just playing the game."
"I think Dex just has a great head on his shoulders. He knows what Coach wants. I just think that comes from playing in Coach's system for a while and having faith in his teammates, and also putting extra time in the gym working on his ball handling and shooting free throws," added teammate James Michael McAdoo.
Strickland tells us he's spent considerable time over the last couple of years watching a few NBA stars in particular that he's tried to emulate.
"I watched a lot of film on Chris Paul. My favorite player is Russell Westbrook so I watch him a lot. He's not a natural point guard but you can see what he does for others (his teammates). (I've also watched) Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall."
Thanks in large part to his film study and his own natural progression, Strickland isn't that same kid who ran all over the place making effort plays but not always the smart plays earlier in his North Carolina career.
Strickland often played like a bull in a china shop early on as a Tar Heel---relentless in pursuit of the ball and making a play, but sometimes a little too eager and all over the place.
He'd commit a dumb foul being aggressive after a UNC turnover.
He'd try to take the ball straight to the hole instead of dishing out to a wide-open shooter.
He'd over-compensate on defense, again trying to be aggressive, which would lead to an opportunity for the opposition.
But since his injury, Strickland says that things have slowed down for him to a point where he's much more comfortable and confident playing at different speeds instead of always at that 100-miles-an-hour speed, which can be counter-productive at times.
"I think my injury helped me out a lot with that. It forced me to slow down a little bit. Now I can keep my speed and maintain my composure. Just keeping my composure and making the right decision," he said.
Strickland has been spending a lot of extra time in the gym working on everything from dribbling and defense to shooting extra free throws.
"It's just a confidence (thing with free throws)," Strickland said. "Free throws, they're free. You're supposed to make them."
The extra time seemed to have paid off for Strickland a little, as he's made six of nine free throws over UNC's last four contests, compared to four-of-nine shooting from the line during Carolina's three-game run in Maui.
"I'm not worried about them (free throws)," Strickland said. "I knew it was going to fall soon. I wasn't worried about it at all. Our team, we have to step up and make free throws down the stretch. It's just an important part to our game that we have to improve on."
Along with making several notable improvements in his own game, Strickland has a unique chance to bring along Paige, the team's point guard of the present and future, during this one season the two will play together as Tar Heel teammates.
And Strickland has embraced that role, according to Williams.
"I think Marcus is really intelligent and learns from everything, and I think Dex taking him under his arm has helped him as well," said Williams.