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The Daily Tar Heel

Strickland ?nding footing

Freshman overcomes early woes

Dexter Strickland averages 5.6 points per game for UNC in his first season. DTH File/Phong Dinh
Dexter Strickland averages 5.6 points per game for UNC in his first season. DTH File/Phong Dinh

Everything about freshman Dexter Strickland is precise.

The whisker-thin mustache just above his upper lip is always groomed to perfection. That attention to detail extends to his neatly trimmed hairline, where there’s never a strand out of place.

And when he answers a question, he’s never in a rush. He pauses to measure his words until he figures out a response that is just right.

Perhaps that’s why the transition to Carolina blue has been so difficult for him.

On the basketball court, the first-year point guard has struggled to be the meticulous person he is off it.

“It was tough at first because I never played the point guard position,” said Strickland, who played shooting guard in high school. “Roy (Williams has) been getting on me in practice to make sure I’m doing the right things.

“I have silly turnovers in a game, but all I can do is learn from them and get better.”

The steep learning curve he faced was evident from his first game as a Tar Heel.

In that game, an 88-72 rout of Florida International, Strickland looked as comfortable as a duck to ice.

He turned the ball over five times, notching only two points to go with one assist.

“I was nervous, just to play in front of 22,000 fans every night,” Strickland said. “Just bringing the ball up, always having the ball in your hands, everybody looks for you to make plays for them.”

But that’s not to say the former McDonald’s All-American didn’t flash his potential early.

Against eventual Final Four team Michigan State on Dec. 1, the Rahway, N.J., native made the most of his 14 minutes on the court to stuff the box score.

 Strickland scored nine points, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal — all to go with exactly zero turnovers.

Add that to his 17-point explosion at Clemson, and it’s easy to see why coach Roy Williams was so excited with him during the recruiting process.

“I think he’s understanding more about what we’re doing each and every game and practice experience,” Williams said. “He’s got some really big-time tools.”

But those highlights have come with too many inconsistent showings for his liking. Poor decision-making seesawed him between Williams’ doghouse and good graces all season.

“I don’t think anybody has seen me play to my full potential on the college level,” Strickland said. “It’s kind of aggravating because I put the work in, and I can’t wait until it pays off.”

For the year, Strickland’s adjustment to point guard has worked out to 5.6 points per game and an almost even assist-to-turnover ratio — 67 assists to 59 mistakes.

“I can only imagine how tough it’s been for Dexter, playing two-guard most of your life and then coming to a program like UNC where there’s so much responsibility on the point guard,” guard Larry Drew II said. “He’s handled it a lot better than I would have expected him to.”

That attitude has been Strickland’s saving grace.

Strickland has fought through his mistakes and a tough UNC season to salvage some success in the NIT, where he is averaging 7.7 points per game and has committed just three turnovers.

But don’t expect Strickland to be satisfied with that improvement.

After all, there are still a few hairs out of place.

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