CHAPEL HILL — Harrison Barnes hits clutch shots. John Henson dominates defensively. Tyler Zeller towers over almost everyone on the block.
Yet North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall - who has pushed the pace during his team's late-season run - considers a different Tar Heel the "X-factor" as UNC prepares for Friday's NCAA regional semifinal game against 11th-seeded Marquette: shooting guard Dexter Strickland, the sophomore who has garnered the fewest accolades of them all.
"A lot of things that Dex does doesn't show up on the stat sheet," Marshall said. "He keeps getting these tough matchups, but he goes out there and competes for 40 minutes."
Strickland - who grew up about 13 miles south of Newark, N.J., the East Regional site of the round of 16 - has been the least attention-grabbing of a group that saw its four other starters make All-ACC teams. He's averaging 7.4 points, has struggled from the 3-point line (3-for-22 over his last 23 games) and is at his best offensively when he's attacking the basket in transition.
But his biggest asset to the second-seeded Tar Heels has been coming through in key ways, when they needed him the most.
After junior point guard Larry Drew II quit and announced he was transferring in February, Strickland took over the backup ballhandling role, increasing his minutes while juggling positions after finally getting comfortable at shooting guard. Without Drew, he also was left the task of defending the opponents' top perimeter players, and he's done that particularly well.
Last Sunday, for instance, he helped hold Washington's leading scorer, Isaiah Thomas, to 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting - and at least three of those baskets came against Tar Heels other than Strickland.
Friday, he'll likely be asked to take on Marquette's leading scorer, Raleigh's Darius Johnson-Odom, who hit the clutch, go-ahead 3-pointer to beat Syracuse last weekend.
"It's hard because one game we're asking him to chase a guy around screens like crazy, and the next we're telling him he's got to stay in front of the basketball, and the guy is quick as lightning," coach Roy Williams said.
And it's harder still because Strickland has been doing it with a slightly torn meniscus in his right knee. He could have had surgery in February, when the injury occurred, but instead chose to keep playing - not uttering a peep to fans or media about swelling or off-and-on soreness.
"I don't use it as an excuse for my play," Strickland said after Williams revealed the injury following the ACC tournament, when the sophomore shot 0-for-4 over three games.
Strickland has said his knee has felt better since then, and not surprisingly that's correlated on the stat sheet. He went 8-for-14 from the floor during his first two NCAA tournament games, and his two free throws Sunday with five seconds left sealed UNC's victory over the Huskies - and his first trip to the round of 16. Considering what Strickland has quietly meant to the team, Williams said that it was fitting that it was he at the line in that situation.
"The kids love him, they gravitate to him," Williams said. "They understand that he hasn't gotten the accolades, the honors that everyone else has had, but yet they understand how important he is to our team. Nobody thinks they can chase him down from behind. Nobody enjoys him guarding them. Nobody enjoys trying to stop him when he tries to take it to the basket."
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