Tar Heels welcome back the 'old Strickland' after injury rehabbed

acarter@newsobserver.comFebruary 5, 2013 

— Two days after he underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor from his kidney, Roy Williams returned to North Carolina and watched some of his players go through conditioning drills. He paid special attention to Dexter Strickland, the senior guard who was still recovering from a knee injury.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s not ready to go,’ ” Williams said on Monday, recounting the moment.

If Williams’ memory is correct, it was Sept. 21 when he watched Strickland labor through conditioning drills. The start of practice was still a few weeks away. There was no thought, Williams said on Monday, of allowing Strickland a full season to recover from the torn ACL he suffered on Jan. 19, 2012.

“At that point we thought we probably still had time,” Williams said.

Strickland had to work quickly, though, to get in shape for the season. Williams ordered him out of the normal routine of pick-up games and off-season conditioning workouts.

Jonas Sahratian, the UNC basketball team’s strength and conditioning coordinator, and Chris Hirth, the team’s head trainer, spent the next month working with Strickland, trying to strengthen his knee. The season began. Weeks passed, and months. Sometimes, Strickland said recently, Williams challenged him.

“He challenges me a lot,” Strickland said after UNC’s 72-60 overtime victory against Virginia Tech on Saturday. “He kind of mentioned it in practice the other day … he wants to see the ‘old Strickland’ on defense.”

After months of waiting, Williams, whose Tar Heels host Wake Forest at the Smith Center Tuesday night, finally saw the old Strickland on Saturday. Considered the Heels’ best perimeter defender a season ago before his knee injury, Strickland helped limit the Hokies’ Erick Green – the nation’s leading scorer – to just 16 points.

“Put it this way,” Williams said on Monday. “It’s the first time this year I’ve said, man, he may be back to 100 percent defensively. So we need him to do that, and I hope that he can do it on a consistent basis for us now.”

Even before the start of the season, when during less-public moments he was still rehabbing his knee, Strickland never used his injury as an excuse. He hasn’t still, even amid an inconsistent senior season that has caused him to be the Tar Heels’ most scrutinized player.

With the departures of four players all drafted in the first 17 selections of the NBA draft, Strickland entered the season with hopes of becoming a go-to player on offense. That hasn’t happened, and his 42.7 percent shooting percentage is a career low.

He hoped, too, that he’d remain the same imposing perimeter defender that he was before his injury. But defense, too, has been a struggle at times.

“I really don’t know,” Strickland said when asked on Saturday to describe the difference between the “old Strickland” and now. “It’s just not clicking yet.”

The Tar Heels’ past two games have provided signs that it might click sooner rather than later. During UNC’s 82-70 victory at Boston College last week, Strickland finished with 14 points – the most he had scored in an ACC game.

Then came the strong defensive performance against Green and Virginia Tech. Three other players – Marcus Paige, Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald – also guarded Green, but Strickland was most instrumental in limiting him.

In both of UNC’s past two games, Strickland also has successfully pushed the offensive pace in his limited time at point guard. He remains the backup at that position to Paige, but Strickland has just seven fewer assists than Paige, and 19 fewer turnovers.

Strickland has started every game this season, just like he did last year before his injury. Only recently, though, has he began to resemble the player he was a season ago, when his defensive ability was as valuable as his knack for running in transition, and penetrating the lane on offense.

Williams recalled on Monday when Strickland “ran with a limp” and “was just way out of whack” in September. It has taken awhile, but now Strickland appears a lot closer than he did to resembling his old self.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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