As the ACC submerges itself in the glitz and glamour of Greensboro – just ask Jim Boeheim how bright those lights can be – let us take a moment to pause and recognize the opposite. Each of the Triangle’s three teams gets its grit from one player in particular, selfless and willing, perhaps without the talent of his teammates but with the right attitude.
No one works visibly harder than N.C. State’s Richard Howell, perhaps the ACC’s most prodigious generator of sweat. North Carolina’s Dexter Strickland has taken on defensive responsibilities for an offensive-minded team. And for Duke, it’s Tyler Thornton, who brings what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski calls “anger” to the job.
“The dirty work that’s done in a game is better done by somebody who has that type of attitude, than someone who’s like, I’m going to be cool and happy-go-lucky,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know if you get down and stop a guy or get a loose ball or take a charge and do those things.”
Or, as Strickland put it, “you have to realize what you have to do to stay on the floor.”
Howell does those things. His hard work on the boards and willingness to mix it up under the basket are critical to N.C. State’s success, and on a team where the collective effort isn’t always total, Howell is invariably fully committed.
Over the course of the season, Howell has earned plaudits many opposing coaches, all of whom have talked about how much they’d like to have Howell on their team. And why not? What team couldn’t use a hard-working rebounder who accepts his role silently and works tirelessly?
“I love that kid. He’s my kind of guy,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said after Howell had a double-double against his team in January.
Howell has been that way since he was a freshman. So was Thornton, who was told early in the recruiting process that the Blue Devils didn’t see him as a starter, but an invaluable role player who would help Duke win.
“He doesn’t even have to score and he’s valuable,” Krzyzewski said. “He adds a toughness, a leadership quality, knowledge of the game. He can help lead us on the court when he’s out there. He’s a terrific role player for us. Very, very valuable guy, whether he’s starting, coming off the bench, no matter what number of minutes.”
In his three years, that’s just what Thornton has done. He has started 26 games, but he’s been more valuable as a lock-down perimeter defender and leader. But that doesn’t mean he can’t score, as North Carolina coach Roy Williams found out the hard way.
“Two of the biggest shots when we played them over there were by Tyler Thornton,” Williams said. “You’d probably go Seth (Curry) or Ryan (Kelly) or Quinn (Cook) or Rasheed (Sulaimon) and, oh yeah, Tyler. But he made two of the biggest 3s.”
Unlike Thornton, Strickland expected to be a star at North Carolina. He was a scorer in high school who had to acclimate himself to a new role with the Tar Heels – defender, facilitator, survivor of a serious knee injury. His absence was keenly felt last spring when Kendall Marshall was hurt and the Tar Heels couldn’t turn to Strickland.
Strickland made himself so valuable in that role, even when some fans were clamoring for him to come out of the lineup earlier this season so P.J. Hairston could play, Williams instead went to a four-guard lineup, leaving Strickland in and taking out a big man, against his most doctrinaire tendencies.
“Before I got hurt, they labeled me as ‘The Dex Factor,’ just being that guy to get that steal on defense and get transition dunks and get the crowd and the team involved,” Strickland said. “That’s been the biggest transition for me, coming from high school and scoring all the time, coming here having to focus more on defense.”
Typically, this kind of work goes unrecognized, but Howell was honored on the all-ACC’s first team this week, ahead of higher-profile teammates Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie. It was a rare personal accolade for a player in his role, an acknowledgement of just how important Howell’s hard work is to the Wolfpack’s success.
For all three players, that will be the real measure of their contributions: How far their teams go in Greensboro this week, and beyond.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947