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UNC Basketball Preview Part 2: The Freshmen, and the Role of Dexter Strickland

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Let's continue from where we left off yesterday. UNC finished the season ranked eighth and one step shy of the Final Four. Having only lost Justin Knox to graduation and Leslie McDonald to injury, the Tar Heels could be expected to make a run at the championship based on experience alone and one or two freshmen to fill out the bench. Instead, they bring in a five-person top-five recruiting class with two McDonald's All-Americans.

James McAdoo is the most eagerly anticipated of the freshman, to the extent that there were hopes he would graduate high school early and enroll at UNC last season. After making the sensible decision to enjoy his senior year of high school, he arrives in Chapel Hill to play the role Marvin Williams and Ed Davis had on the 2005 and 2009 championship teams, respectively. He's the big man who would start almost anywhere else, but instead comes off the bench. People like to speculate that he could start, but I don't think we'll see a lineup of Zeller, Henson and McAdoo very often, as it brings at least one big man too far out onto the perimeter. Although Henson's perimeter defense is surprisingly strong. The one game I would expect to see such a lineup would be against Duke, as Krzyzewski is prone to experiment with some strange lineups of his own, and may decide to put a trio of Plumlees in the game at once. Or two of them and Ryan Kelly, the 6'11 shooting guard that has folks convinced he's the next Kyle Singler despite never displaying anything resembling talent in any game I've seen him in.

Of all the freshmen, McAdoo is the one most likely to fit into the rotation with the fewest growing pains. Big men generally adapt faster that guards, and McAdoo already has good rebounding skills and the speed Roy Williams likes in big men. And should he falter, there are two other freshmen ready to spell him in the frontcourt – Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons. I'm getting whiplash at how quickly UNC went from being so understaffed in the paint that Justin Watts was getting playing time at the four to the current situation where their cup runneth over with big men. We probably won't see too much of Hubert and Simmons, both three-start recruits, this season as they'll spend most of their time learning at the feet of Zeller and Henson and bulking up to adjust to the rigors of college ball, but they may surprise. If nothing else, they'll be a license for UNC to push the limits of their up-tempo pace, as Williams will be able to substitute freely in the frontcourt.

While McAdoo is the most highly touted of the freshmen, the one fans may be more excited about is P.J. Hairston, the shooting guard from Greensboro. Perimeter shooting has been the weak spot in Carolina's offense since the 2009 team left for the pros after their championship season, and Hairston is the great incoming hope for reversing that trend. He's had an auspicious start, sinking 6 of 8 three pointers in sixteen minutes of play in the exhibition game against UNC-Pembroke two weeks ago. It remains to be seen how that performance translates once he faces tougher opposition, and how his own defensive skills match up, but he's likely to get the most playing time of any of the freshmen, due to having to compete for playing time against primarily Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland

Which brings us around to Strickland, and why I've waited to last to discuss him. His career at Carolina has been subject to the whims of personnel necessities. Recruited as a shooting guard, he was press-ganged into being the backup point guard to Larry Drew, where did a decent job, but wasn't really comfortable. 2011 was supposed to be his breakout year, as the addition of Kendall Marshall was to allow him to move back to the shooting guard position. Then, of course, Drew quit the team and Strickland found himself back in the backup point guard role.

The difference last season was that he kept the starting job as shooting guard, while still handling point guard duties whenever Marshall was out of the game. This was in part because Strickland was the best perimeter defender on the team, leading the Tar Heels in steals and almost always assigned to defend the opponent's primary ball handler. The other interesting thing about Strickland's game is that for a shooting guard, he doesn't take many shots from behind the arc. In fact he only took 32 in all of last season, and only sank 8. No, Strickland creates his own shots with dribble-penetration, is very successful at it. I'm sure he was tasked with improving his shooting range in the off-season, but I wouldn't expect a significant leap here.

Which leads us to the quandary that will probably consume Carolina fans at the first sign of trouble. Strickland will almost certainly remain the starter – he is the bet defender, remember – and although Stilman White has been recruited to spell minutes at the point, I expect we'll see Strickland as the guy doing most of the ball-handling when Marshall is on the bench, just like last season. UNC will have one or two excellent three-point shooter coming off the bench in Hairston and Bullock while the starter at shooting guard rarely attempts a three.

This will inevitably lead to complaints from the fans, especially considering the theory that arose in 2010 – one I don't subscribe to – criticizing Williams' lineup decisions. The thinking basically goes that Marcus Ginyard's injury in 2009 was critical to UNC's championship run, because it allowed Danny Green to enter the starting lineup, a switch Williams would have never made on his own, because despite Green's better shooting, Ginyard was the better defender and Williams is pretty hierarchal about these sort of decisions. 

Now again, I don't agree with that line of thinking. Note that it arose after the 2009 team had mostly moved on, and UNC was losing with a hobbled Ginyard as the Heels' best perimeter shooting option at the time. Ginyard was bearing a lot of the frustration for an awful season that wasn't his fault. But I wouldn't be surprised to see such complaints repeated at the first sign of difficulty here. Don't expect much to change however; Strickland will almost certainly keep his hold on the starting job, but depending on how the defensive skills evolve among the other backcourt denizens, his playing time could recede a bit to allow more room for Hairston and Bullock. It's worth noting that improving his defense was one of Marshall's summer assignments, and that Bullock, in limited minutes, had a similar steal rate to Strickland.

All in all, it's a pretty nice problem for a basketball team to have, that of too much talent jockeying for playing time. Last year's team looked to have some of the greatest chemistry I've seen in quite some time (after a certain point guard decamped for the west coast) and I don't expect the influx of freshmen to change that. This is may be the most talented team UNC has fielded under Roy Williams, and there;s a reason everyone is thinking championship thoughts. Now it's time to see what happens when they take the court.