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August 9, 2011The spring of 2011 was a significant grind for then-sophomore Dexter Strickland, the starter at 'two' guard for North Carolina.
While the glory of the moment was fulfilling for the New Jersey native, his physical limitations at the time were anything but.
Playing through a nagging swollen knee down the stretch of Carolina's resurgent ACC championship regular season, Strickland had to make a choice in March over whether to end his year with surgery, or try and fight through the pain and play on.
"My knee was swollen. When we played Duke here at home (in early March) it was swollen that game. And after the game I went to the Doctor, and he said based on how you feel, we'll do surgery or not," Strickland said.
'Strick, as he's mostly known around Chapel Hill and back home in Jersey, made the decision to play on.
Taking medicine to help reduce the swelling in his knee, Strickland trudged on with his teammates, helping the Tar Heels advance to the Elite Eight before being upended by Kentucky in Newark.
"I took some medicine, and after that the swelling went down and it hasn't been a problem since," he said.
Remarkably, Strickland's knee situation has improved most dramatically over the past few months with medicine instead of the surgical option.
In fact, as the summer has gone on, he hasn't had to take the medicine for his knee swelling anymore either.
He says that he's gotten no less that a gift from above with his improved flexibility and mobility, and is thrilled about heading into his junior season at UNC fully healthy.
"My knee is great. There's no problems with my knee at all. God has blessed me. I don't feel any problems with my knee," he said. "The Doctor said I shouldn't have to have surgery if nothing is wrong with it. So far so good."
"I thought I was going to have to get surgery, but I was taking my medicine to keep the swelling down. I don't even have to take it no more. (I) just (have) to keep ice on it, stay in ice baths. But my body feels good."
Strickland's knee recovery is good news for a Carolina squad that recently lost fellow 'two' guard Leslie McDonald to a significant knee injury of his own in July that did require surgery and will probably force him to miss the upcoming season.
It's all the more imperative now with McDonald injured that Strickland draw from the challenges of a season ago, take advantage of his newfound health as a junior, and progress as a vital cog in the Tar Heel rotation.
After serving mostly as the top backup to Larry Drew II at point guard as a freshman back in 2009-2010, Strickland stepped into the starting lineup for the Tar Heels this past season at the 'two' and wound up playing an even 1,000 minutes---more than anyone else on the UNC roster with exception of Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes.
He wasn't truly prepared for stepping into a role at point guard for UNC as a rookie after mostly playing the 'two' in high school, but the Tar Heels didn't have a primary backup to Drew and that's where Coach Williams needed him at the time.
And with Kendall Marshall arriving last summer, the bigger need for Strickland suddenly shifted over to the 'two,' where UNC had lost the prior year's starter Will Graves.
And again, Strickland met the team's need.
"It's been a journey for me. Coming in as a freshman and not having the knowledge to play point guard and playing under Larry (Drew II), and watching him and stuff like that, it's been a learning experience," said Strickland.
"From freshman to sophomore, me starting at the 'two,' I had to adjust back to my high school ways of getting the ball and scoring like that."
"And I had to really focus on defense, because my offense wasn't there," he added.
Strickland averaged 7.5 points per game this past season, which ranked fourth among Carolina's starters, and he didn't get those points the way most traditional shooting guards do.
Instead of relying on his jump shot---which 'Strick very rarely did---he used his outstanding speed, defensive awareness, and ability to convert in transition to get most of his points for the Tar Heels.
For 'Strick, a steal on defense converted into a layup or dunk on the other end became his way of burying that clutch three-pointer that many schools are more used to seeing from college 'two' guards these days.
Strickland made just eight three-pointers all season a year ago compared to his team-best 46 steals, so it's easy to see where many of his points were coming from.
"I figured if I would get my defense down pat, it would lead to offense," he said. "And I think we did a great job of that last season, starting our defense and letting it transition into offense."
Strickland is eager about the upcoming opportunity to push for North Carolina's third national championship in seven seasons in the spring of 2012.
"I was happy (to hear about everyone coming back)," he said. "Everybody coming back, it just shows how we play, how we love each other, and how we want to win. And it just motivates everybody."
Strickland, who's never been shy about speaking his mind, set the bar pretty high when asked about expectations.
"I figured us making to at least to the Final Four was mandatory, especially with the season that we had (last year) making it to the Elite Eight," he said.
He said that one early game he's already got on his mind is the clash with Texas in the Smith Center, which will be nationally televised from Chapel Hill the evening of December 21.
"I think one of the big games for us this year will be Texas," he said. "They've beat us three times in a row, which is kind of embarrassing. But those kinds of games motivate us to play even harder and get that win."
And he's obviously looking forward to those two clashes in mid-February and early March between his Tar Heels and the arch-rival Blue Devils in the Smith Center and Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"(I'm looking forward to) Blowouts (against Duke this season). Nah, just joking," he said.
Even with Duke losing standouts Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, among others, Strickland wasn't willing to give the Blue Devils any bulletin board material.
"It's still going to be a great game. They (Duke) are a great University, a great team, and they have a great coach. And it's still going to be a rivalry, even if they lost three players," he said.
"But we're looking forward to those games. We're looking forward to every game. We've just got to take it day by day," Strickland continued.
"We don't want to lose. We figure we can be a better team than we were last season."
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