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Dexter Strickland’s ball handling, defense may be tough to replace

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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For all the handwringing surrounding North Carolina's 33-point shellacking at Florida State on Saturday, it may be the Tar Heels' bounce-back win at Virginia Tech on Thursday night that turns out to be more costly.

Oh sure, North Carolina rallied from a five-point halftime deficit against the Hokies to ease their way to an 82-68 win. In the midst of that surge, however, the Tar Heels lost starting guard Dexter Strickland to a right knee injury.

Tests revealed Friday that Strickland tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and will miss the remainder of the season. Strickland sustained the injury when his knee appeared to buckle as he planted going up for a shot in transition a little over three minutes into Thursday's second half.

"I'm not sure anything popped, but I did come down pretty awkward," Strickland told ESPN.com Thursday night. "It hurt. It's a little sore right now, but the doctors will take a look when we get back to the school, and see how it looks."

The loss of Strickland is a significant blow to North Carolina's hopes of winning the ACC, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and capturing Roy Williams' third national championship. In addition to averaging 7.5 points and 2.1 assists, Strickland is the Tar Heels premier perimeter defender and he's the only player in the rotation who can spell starter Kendall Marshall at point guard.

How Strickland's absence will impact North Carolina's rotation remains to be seen, but it's safe to assume sophomore Reggie Bullock will enter the starting lineup and freshman P.J. Hairston will receive more playing time as well. Both are better perimeter shooters than Strickland but they're not as effective defensively.

At point guard, Marshall will likely have to play close to 40 minutes a night in big games because Strickland was the lone reliable backup. Freshman point guard Stilman White has played sparingly so far this season and will have to prove to the coaching staff he's ready for meaningful minutes before he receives them.

Strickland, who suffered a serious left knee injury in high school, appeared to have a good attitude Friday night despite the devastating news.

Tweeted Strickland,"Positive thinking! Everything happens for a reason, God always has a plan! Thanks to everyone who is praying for me! I appreciate it!"

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