Short but long at the same time.
If there is any comfort to be had in Dexter Strickland being lost for the season besides there being a comparable backup available it is the notion that Roy Williams' coached teams at UNC seem to deal with personnel losses midseason fairly well. Much of that has to do with the deep roster Roy maintains but it also says something about the way players step up in the face of adversity. Here is a brief look at injuries/personnel changes that have occurred during the season since 2004.
2005: Rashad McCants out with mysterious intestinal ailment.
Time Missed: 4 games
Team Record: 4-0
The 2005 team is a nice comparison, mainly because the depth level for that team is much like this one. In this case, McCants developed some sort of intestinal issue which kept him out of games against NC State, Maryland, Florida State and Duke. In McCants' absence, Roy Williams reconfigured the starting lineup moving Jackie Manuel to SF and starting Melvin Scott at SG. During this four game stretch, Raymond Felton averaged 37 mpg, a pace he would continue into the NCAA Tournament except when foul trouble vs Villanova dictated otherwise. UNC's 4-0 record during this stretch was due in large part to the play of Sean May who went over 20 points three times and record a double-double in all four games. Okay, Sean May had a double-double in almost every game that year or so it seemed. Felton had two 10-assist games in that span. McCants returned for the ACC Tournament which saw UNC exit in the semifinals vs Georgia Tech. The Heels went on to win the national title.
2008: Bobby Frasor tears ACL vs Nevada, Ty Lawson injures ankle vs Florida St.
Time Missed: Frasor: 27 games, Lawson: 6 games
Team Record: Without Frasor: 24-3, Lawson: 5-1
First it was Bobby Frasor tearing his ACL vs Nevada in December. At the time it hurt but UNC still had Ty Lawson so it was not a huge hit. Then roughly five minutes into the game in Tallhassee on Super Bowl Sunday, Seminole Ryan Reid did a wrestling take down of Ty Lawson with Lawson's foot being trapped in a bad position resulting in a high ankle sprain. Lawson left the game and would not return for a three weeks. UNC then turned to senior Quentin Thomas who had spend three years being mostly awful in his game appearances. Fortunately for UNC, the senior was up to the task and filled in as admirably as he could. The Heels escaped FSU with an OT win but then lost to Duke in Chapel Hill which was attributed to poor shooting over anything else. Then came the double OT win vs Clemson that saw the Heels trailing by 15 with three minutes left in regulation. UNC rallied and ultimately survived. Thomas struggled early on in that game versus the Clemson press but in the end played 45 minutes recording nine assists and six points. Thomas made the game tying layup at the end of regulation then hit two free throws to tie the game at the end of the first OT. UNC then survived a scare at Virginia which was their third game in seven days. Overall, Thomas rose to the occasion as did the rest of the team until Lawson's eventual return.
2009: Marcus Ginyard injures foot, Ty Lawson injures toe
Time Missed: Ginyard: 35 games, Lawson: 3 games
Team Record: Without Ginyard: 33-3, Lawson: 2-1
Note: I am leaving out the Tyler Hansbrough shin injury which cost him three games, Tyler Zeller's broken wrist and Will Graves' late season suspension. None had a discernible impact on the season as a whole.
One of the interesting debates UNC fans have from time to time is whether Marcus Ginyard's foot surgery prior to the 2009 season was a good thing. Ginyard was the starting SF which relegated Danny Green to coming off the bench. Roy's thinking then(and now) was to have a perimeter defensive ace on the court as part of the starting group even if it means giving up a little offense to do it. And its been difficult to argue with the results since the 2008 team with Ginyard starting and Green coming off the bench went 36-3. At any rate, Ginyard's surgery forced Roy Williams to do what many fans had wanted anyway which was put Green in as a starter. The results were fairly impressive to say the least as Green easily became the heart and soul of that team. Ginyard did attempt to return in January but it was clear he could not perform up the his previous level so after four games he took a redshirt. UNC cruised along until the Friday before the regular season finale vs Duke when Lawson jammed his toe against a basket support in the Dean Dome resulting in a injury no one to this day has really ever explained. Lawson was given a painkilling injection so he could play vs Duke but the result was an exacerbation of the injury. Roy opted to sit Lawson for the ACC Tournament(UNC lost in the semis) and the NCAA 1st Round game vs Radford. Lawson returned against LSU in the 2nd Round and with the Heels national title hopes in the balance took the game over in the 2nd half to send UNC to Memphis. The Heels never slowed down from that point and won the title.
2010: Just name a player, they probably were injured
Time Missed: A lot
Team Record: 20-17
I am not going to relive 2010. There were injuries aplenty and were part of the reason the train went off the tracks so badly. This stands as the one time a Roy Williams team did not respond in a positive way to adversity.
2011: Larry Drew aka Some Other Kid leaves the team in February
Time Missed: 16 games
Team Record: 13-3
Okay, this isn't an injury but it is a significant personnel loss during the season, one that is still impacting UNC today. Some Other Kid had been a controversial player since the 2010 season. Despite Roy Williams going out on the proverbial limb time and time again to support and protect his brooding PG, SOK was obviously unable to handle coming off the bench(despite flourishing) so he quit. That left the Heels in a tough spot. Regardless of how people feel about SOK and setting aside any potential team chemistry issues, not having him created a problem. It created a problem last season in certain games when having another perimeter player would have helped. It created a problem this season when Roy was forced to go out and sign Stilman White as a last resort backup. Had SOK left after the 2010 season like everyone thought he would, perhaps Roy gets a better option for this season. As it played out, UNC now faces a gap at backup PG created by this decision. Then again, most UNC fans probably would agree they would rather live with White as the backup now than SOK being on the team for the past year so it is what it is. Two days after SOK left the team, UNC faced FSU on Super Bowl Sunday, this time in Chapel Hill. It. Was. Epic. Freshman Kendall Marshall, knowing the full weight of the PG position had been thrust upon him without the benefit of a safety net, dropped sixteen assists in one of the biggest "screw you" games I think I have ever seen. From that point on, the season was a lot more fun. The Heels won the ACC regular season title by beating Duke in Chapel Hill in a game where Marshall was again awesome. I don't know what would have happened had SOK stayed but I do know when he left the team came together and accomplished much.
So what do these situations teach us? That UNC teams under Roy Williams do a good job accounting for the loss of a key player. Granted much of that has to do with quality of depth and a starting lineup with enough offensive weapons to cover for the loss of one player's production. Out of the examples above, the loss of Lawson for six games in 2008 and Ginyard's season ending injury in 2009 stands as the most applicable ones. In 2008, a backup point guard no one believed could carry the load carried it. Granted, Thomas was a top 100 recruit so it should not have been a surprise but to the point his play had not given anyone reason to believe he could bridge the gap. This season Stilman White looks to do his best Quentin Thomas impersonation and hold the car on the road while Marshall gets a breather. The upside here is White is not being asked to play big minutes just enough minutes to get by. In 2009 it was the exchange of a defensive first player in Ginyard for a offensive minded option in Green. This time Bullock will start for Strickland and every indication is this will lead to an improved Tar Heel offense. In 2009, Green actually turned out to be a very good defensive player. If Bullock can do the same and give UNC a bump in the three point shooting department(UNC is shooting 23% in ACC play from three) then the Heels can weather this injury.
All signs point to this group and this coach being able to make the necessary adjustments to keep the train moving in the right direction. We will see if that is the case starting Thursday night.