Yes, it’s a biggie. Ask any Tar Heel fan.
The 6-3 junior is UNC’s best perimeter defender, one of its primary ball-handlers and the security blanket in case anything happened to point guard Kendall Marshall. (Doubly so given that guard Leslie McDonald tore his ACL during the summer.)
Strickland isn’t a stat-stuffer, but he’s one of Roy Williams’ ideal players – he allows the offensive-minded players in the offense to thrive. When Williams has a guy who can disrupt an opponent’s best player (David Noel in 2005), his team really thrive.
But this isn’t the end of UNC’s title hopes. In fact, it may just be a hiccup.
Strickland’s role is easy to describe, but harder to pinpoint exactly how much he impacts UNC’s play. Yes, he plays great defense. Ask any Tar Heel onlooker. But his defense isn’t good enough to where UNC will collapse without him. When the 2009 team won a title, it did so without a lockdown defender (Marcus Ginyard was supposed to be that guy but was hurt). If this team reaches the Final Four or even win it all, it can do so without Strickland.
Consider: Strickland used just 14.2 percent of the team’s possessions and took 13.1 percent of its shots while playing 60.7 percent of available minutes. He didn’t impact the offense at all. (Marshall has similar usage and shot percentages, but his assist numbers dwarf Strickland’s, meaning his offensive role is clear.)
If Strickland’s not in, it gives guys like Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston more playing time, both of whom score more efficiently and are larger parts of the offense, even with coming off the bench. This post from Tar Heel Fan lists each player’s season impact rating (go with it; he’s done the work) and shows Strickland to be less consistent and have less impact than Bullock this far. And with guys like John Henson and Tyler Zeller in the frontcourt, the Heels’ post defense remains its strength.
This isn’t to suggest losing Strickland is a good thing.
Anyone that focuses on defense and ensuring the other guys play well is hardly worthless. His absence means the Heels’ perimeter defense could fall off and Marshall no longer has someone who can automatically take the quickest guard.
But if Strickland was hindering the offense, it’ll be interesting to see how UNC responds. Remember, he’s a non-factor who only attempted one 3-pointer all season and basically only scored in transition. Bullock and Hairston are guys who can stretch a defense and score in transition. Despite the talent, this isn’t one of Williams’ best offensive teams. In fact, it still needs plenty of work.
If UNC wants to make that run at a title, I’d suggest kicking the offense into high gear and seeing if everyone else can keep up (this does not mean Harrison Barnes should just start chucking shot after shot, though). At this point, what else can you do?
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