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June 7, 2012

Strickland working his way back

It's a moment that Dexter Strickland doesn't want to remember, much less talk about. The moment when his junior season got derailed this past winter at Cassel Coliseum in Blacksburg.

"It was horrible. I don't really like to think about it or talk about it, but it was horrible," Strickland said Thursday afternoon.

Strickland was in the middle of helping UNC get an important road victory at Virginia Tech when he made a strange landing after leaping into the air attempting to elude a Hokies defender, tearing the ACL in his right knee.

"I knew as soon as I Euro-stepped, I just felt the shift, and the pain, I can't really explain it," Strickland said. "It was real bad obviously. I actually walked to the locker room, so I don't know. I was hoping it wasn't an ACL tear, but it's really something I don't want to talk about or think about. It was the biggest injury of my career."

Over the past several months Strickland has been progressively working his knee back into shape, and according to a UNC trainer, which was relied on by a school official, the rising senior is expected to be cleared for basketball participation around late August or early September.

"It's feeling better," Strickland said of his knee. "I just started running last week. The Doctor has cleared me to start running. So, so far it's treating me good."

"I haven't done much yet. I have a meeting with the Doctor (this coming week). Hopefully I'll get clearance and start jumping and start doing more lateral movement and stuff like that."

Strickland's primary rehabilitation has included water exercises in the pool at the Smith Center, as well as conducting strength training with the UNC staff in the weight room and in specific rehab sessions.

"I've been doing lifting with Jonas (Sarahtian), squatting, box jumps, just different stuff to try to get the strength back in my knee," he said.

While his teammates are engaged in pickup games, Strickland is usually in the pool.

"During the pickup I'm mainly in the pool doing rehab, and we have a trainer that helps me out doing dribbling drills, working on my ball handling and stuff like that. When they're doing pickup I'm usually in the pool," he said.

He admits that rehabilitation has been a struggle, but he sees weekly progress and he's looking very much forward to getting back on the court with his teammates.

"Rehab was tough, just getting my range of motion back. It was just frustrating mentally knowing I can't do things, and trying to be patient and stuff like that was tough for me," he said.

"The most difficult part is just being injured and watching the guys play pickup and not being able to work out with them, not being able to work on my game and getting better, working on jump shooting and dribbling drills and stuff like that."

"I think I've come a long way. I have much improvement to do of course, but so far it's been good," Strickland added. "(UNC athletics trainer) Chris (Hirth) actually told me I'm recovering fast, better than normal. I'm right on schedule," he continued.

"It's getting better day by day, the range of motion, the strength. I think the big thing now is getting strength back in my thigh and my quad so it can take some of the pressure off my knee. The process has been good so far."

It's highly unlikely that Strickland will be 'game ready' by the time he gets cleared in the late summer, but he says he's staying focused on daily training as opposed to trying to put a timeframe on his return.

"I won't be 100 percent as soon as I come back, but there's other things i can work on besides my speed that will help me during the game. But I know when I come back I won't be full speed," he said. "I've tried not to think about it that much."

"I don't know what percentage I'll be during August or September. Hopefully I'll be 100 percent or 96 percent. I'm just focusing on now, trying to get my knee better now."

"I should be fine. They (the Doctors and trainers) haven't said I'm going to be jumping less or I'm slower. The surgery went well and he (the surgeon) expects me to recover really well."

Once Strickland does return to the court, he can expect to see plenty of action at the point guard spot for the Tar Heels.

With UNC losing Kendall Marshall to the NBA and Stilman White to his Mormon mission, the program doesn't have another returning point.

Five-star freshman Marcus Paige will help ease the burden on Strickland, but the only senior on the Tar Heel roster should expect to see plenty of action at the point this coming season, and perhaps even step into the starting job.

"I do expect to play point guard way more than I did last year, and that's one of the things I've been focusing on, watching film on different players and trying to get that point guard mindset," Strickland said. "He (Coach Williams) told me some things, just mainly that I had to focus on the point guard position."

Strickland told us he's been watching film of several players in the NBA to get a better grasp of point guard play.

"I watch Ty Lawson. I watch Chris Paul. I watched Tony Parker during the (recent playoff) series. Guys like that are very, very good in what they do, so I try to study them and try to get the same mindset that they have."

Strickland has spent considerable time the past couple of seasons playing backup point guard behind former UNC players like Marshall and Larry Drew Jr., and he'll be able to fall back on those experiences to help him ease back into the role.

"I've played there (at the point) after Larry and after Kendall, so just being in that spot and knowing how to get the job done---and taking advice from those guys---will help me out," he said.

The fact that UNC is so deep along the perimeter with returning players like Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock, and P.J. Hairston means that Strickland probably won't have to play as much at the 'two' guard this coming season after starting there most of last season.

He still sees himself as a versatile guard capable of playing either the point or the 'two' guard, but mainly he wants to be in position to help UNC win games his last season.

"I still see myself as a combo guard. I think there's more room to grow, and there's never a time where I'll stop learning or I'll stop developing my game as far as being a point guard or being a 'two' guard," he said. "So I think it's important for me to focus on whatever I have to do to help my team win."

Having gone through a similar injury and rehabilitation in recent months, McDonald can relate very well to what Strickland has gone through.

The fact that they were already close friends means that the two have built a unique bond through their shared experiences.

"He (McDonald) has given me a lot of advice. He told me to keep my head. (He said) I'm going to struggle with being frustrated and not being able to play, but just making sure I'm rehabbing each day with the trainer, and working to strengthen my knee."

"We have a strong relationship. I look at Leslie as my brother," he continued.

"I look at everybody as my brother, but Leslie and I are closer because we came in the same year, and I actually knew Leslie before I got to Carolina. Rooming with Leslie my freshman year, sophomore year, and even my junior year has been great for us."

This past season Strickland and McDonald could often be seen together on the UNC bench cutting up, encouraging their teammates, and trying to pick up whatever they could without physically being on the court.

"We sat next to each other and laughed and joked around, but he's been a big help as far as helping me get over my injury," Strickland said. "We've had some great times on the bench."

Looking ahead to his final season in the powder blue, Strickland sees a UNC squad that is going to be unheralded compared to recent seasons.

And he feels that the lack of expectations will create a sense of motivation for the players to achieve something.

"I feel we're going to be the underdogs just a little bit, just the fact that we've lost John (Henson), Z (Tyler Zeller), Kendall (Marshall), and Harrison (Barnes)," he said. "I think that we have something to prove."

"I think everybody is thinking that we won't be as talented, and we won't be able to accomplish the same goals we accomplished last season, and I think that gives everybody even more motivation to do even better."

As the most experienced player on the UNC roster at the collegiate level coming back next season, Strickland is looking use that experience to his advantage.

"I just look at it like I have more experience now, and just knowing what we have to do to get it done, just knowing what Coach wants and how to win games."





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