UNC looking to adapt without Strickland
North Carolina is loaded at every position but point guard. The one spot where the Tar Heels couldn't afford an injury has now become a reality.
Kendall Marshall is still fine, but his backup, Dexter Strickland, who is also UNC's starting two guard, is out for the season after tearing the right anterior cruciate ligament in Thursday night's win at Virginia Tech.
A junior who spent his freshman year mostly at the point, Strickland (7.5 points, 2.1 assists per game) had become a reliable backup, who used his experience to get the No. 8 Heels (16-3) into their sets and his quickness at getting to the rim himself. Carolina coach Roy Williams has often described the Rahway, N.J., native as the team's top defender.
Needless to say, this is a really big loss for the Tar Heels and puts a cramp in their national championship aspirations.
Some of UNC's options might make the Heels more intriguing at times. For example, sophomore Reggie Bullock (8.4 points, 4.4 rebounds), who was injured almost exactly a year ago and missed the final seven weeks of last season, now gets an opportunity to start at the two spot. Bullock is five inches taller than Strickland, is one of UNC's best defenders and adds perimeter shooting to the starting lineup that only previously existed in the form of Harrison Barnes, as Strickland and Marshall just aren't perimeter threats.
It also means freshman wing P.J. Hairston (7.5 points) will see more time, which is a positive if he's shooting well. Perhaps the added time on the floor will bring more consistency to his performances.
But Marshall can't play 40 minutes a night, so what happens when he needs a rest or if he finds foul trouble?
Freshman Stilman White (64 minutes played) was a late signee a year ago because Williams needed depth at point guard. A Mormon who plans on taking his LDS mission after this school year, then return to the Tar Heels as a sophomore for the 2014-15 season, White has been decent, but sometimes looks out of place.
He's 6-foot-1, but appears more like 5-foot-10 out there. He's rather slight, and he comes off more as a CAA player than someone playing in the ACC. That isn't to suggest White won't do a solid job backup up Marshall, but Williams needs to have a plan in place in case Marshall misses extended time in a game due to fouls or injury. In that case, White simply can't be Carolina's option.
The next best alternative is to have Barnes slide over to the point for a few minutes here and there for a couple reasons: Nobody else on a roster thin on ballhandlers is more suited for the role; and why not put the ball in the hands of the team's best non-post player?
Barnes attended Chris Paul's ballhandling camp last summer, and while there hasn't been a discernible difference in his handle from a year ago when it was a scrutinized concern, Barnes would now have a chance to prove the critics wrong in this role.
Moving Barnes on the ball means taking him off it for several minutes a night, but the plus is he won't have to be a playmaker like Marshall. He can simply get the Heels into the offense. It can create some matchup problems, especially when UNC's perimeter length is the 6-foot-8 Barnes at the top, 6-foot-6 Hairston at the two and 6-foot-7 Bullock at the three.
Barnes hasn't offered much evidence to suggest he's an ideal option here, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Williams can probably script a few interesting plays to accommodate that length.
Another discussed option is to take the red shirt off 6-foot-4 Leslie McDonald, assuming he's ready to play if given the opportunity. But he's nothing more than a smaller Hairston. He's not a point guard, so that won't solve any serious problems.
The backup should be shared by White and Barnes, with the future lottery pick getting the bulk of the minutes. With 12 regular season games, and perhaps 15 total contests left before the NCAA tournament, Barnes could amass around 90-100 minutes at the point, which might be enough to acclimate him to this new role.
If he handles it well, Carolina could remain a top candidate to win the national title, and Barnes' NBA stock will grow even more.