UNC to face freshmen-heavy Wake Forest team

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Marcus Paige (5) shoots over a Virginia Tech defender. Paige finished with 19 points.

During the North Carolina men’s basketball preseason workouts, coach Roy Williams wasn’t sure when he would be able to use one of his top defensive threats this season.

Senior Dexter Strickland was still recovering from a torn ACL, suffered in January of last season. The guard couldn’t make it through practice without limping.

“If everybody had seen him in September,” Williams said in the weekly ACC coaches teleconference, “you would have been questioning whether he would be able to play this whole season because he ran with a limp when we were trying to do the conditioning and he was just way out of whack.”

Now, nearly midway through ACC play, Strickland is back to his old form.

In the overtime win Saturday against Virginia Tech, he held the nation’s leading scorer Erick Green to 16 points, his second-worst game this season.

“It’s the first time this year I’ve said, man, he may be back to 100 percent defensively,” Williams said.

Strickland was one of four players assigned to shut down the Hokies’ most prolific scorer, but in tonight’s game against Wake Forest, Strickland and the Tar Heels will face a different challenge.

UNC will host a Wake Forest team that boasts two veterans who score 15 points per game.

Senior guard C.J. Harris and junior forward Travis McKie are the veteran leaders on a team that starts three rookies.

But Williams and his squad can’t overlook the rest of the Demon Deacons.

After inconsistent performances during the non-conference schedule, freshman Devin Thomas is averaging 10 points in ACC play.

“I don’t think you can ignore everybody else by any means because that’s going to get you beat,” Williams said. “Devin Thomas in ACC play, his stats are really, really impressive.”

The Demon Deacons will be especially motivated coming into the matchup after losing three straight following an upset win at home against then-No.18 N.C. State.

With so many players from North Carolina on Wake Forest’s roster, there will be the added pressure to perform against an in-state rival.

“I think that obviously the name across their chest will resonate,” Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said in the teleconference. “That’s just natural, especially with — we have so many players on our roster from this state.”

UNC will likely have to face a Wake Forest team hungry for another victory against a Triangle team without guard P.J. Hairston, who is suffering from flu-like symptoms unrelated to his recovery from a concussion sustained at Boston College a week ago.

The Tar Heels will have to take a cue from Strickland and play defense on an elevated level to stop what Williams called a “team offense.”

“I think when you’re playing Wake,” Williams said, “I mean, they’re playing seven, eight, nine guys, and you’ve got to be aware of everybody out there.”

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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