CHAPEL HILL — So the moment of truth has arrived for North Carolina. The Tar Heels can regroup and re-establish themselves as one of the top teams in the country, or they can muddle through the rest of the season without Dexter Strickland.
Are they a legitimate ACC and national-title contender, or are they something less than the sum of their considerable parts?
"We have a team that's capable of great things," North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall said. "We haven't played to that level yet this year. We've had glimpses of it."
There haven't been many glimpses of the rivalry between North Carolina and N.C. State lately, but the newly re-energized matchup provides yet another emotional crucible for the Tar Heels, who are coming off the blowout loss at Florida State and the loss of Strickland for the season to a torn ACL.
The Tar Heels face the same issues they did last year after a dismal defeat at Georgia Tech and point guard Larry Drew II's departure. They answered some of the questions posed by the loss to the Seminoles by winning at Virginia Tech, but losing Strickland in the process only posed more.
"Florida State, I expected a reaction," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "I expected better play. If we hadn't gotten better play, then it was going to be tough. Still, you don't know how you're going to react to an injury. We'll have to wait and see about that one."
Tonight's game provides an intriguing stage, and not only because of the emotion involved. The Tar Heels may have a substantial size advantage, but Scott Wood, Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Williams have the ability to score from 3-point range, a noted area of concern for North Carolina defensively - particularly now without Strickland.
Still, North Carolina won the national title in 2009 without its best perimeter defender, Marcus Ginyard, and the Tar Heels showed in their win over Wisconsin earlier this year, they are capable of defending the 3-point line as a team when sufficiently committed.
While there's legitimate interest in Stilman White's ability to replace Strickland, Williams, with some judicious substitutions around TV and team timeouts, can keep Marshall rested and maximize his impact on the game.
"Everybody's got to raise their level of play," Williams said. "If you do that, then you've got a chance of overcoming some things. But if they don't, then the losses that you have personnel-wise or ability-wise shows up a heck of a lot more."
Last year, when the Tar Heels lost Drew at midseason, it provoked them to play their best basketball. That had a lot to do with chemistry, which isn't a factor this year, but the on-court impact is no different.
"At the end of the day, life goes on," Marshall said. "We can't stop the season and say, 'Wait until Dex gets back.' It's almost like déjà vu. Last year, we took a bad loss, we started playing well, we lost a player and we had to figure it out from there."
This is about more than Marshall or White or Reggie Bullock, the players most directly impacted by Strickland's absence. It's about an entire team, and its ambition, and its future.
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