The second half was even more impressive, as Carolina pushed the lead to as many as 31 points. Inevitably there was a bit of a let up over the final 8-10 minutes, though not a total breakdown in concentration. In short, it was a very good night for the Tar Heels.
What remains to be seen is if Carolina can reproduce this level of defensive intensity on a consistent basis, including on the road and those afternoons and nights at the Smith Center when the atmosphere is not super-charged. And of course it remains to be seen how well the team will continue to adjust to playing without Strickland.
Dean Smith held the view that when teams lose a key player to injury, it is common for the rest of the team to lift their performances for one game, before falling back again. In short, the idea is that the loss of a player is felt more over the long haul.
That theorem may turn out to apply in this case. But what's also going on, necessarily, is a reboot of the team's identity. Dexter Strickland is a unique player, with both positive attributes and certain well-known limitations. Putting Reggie Bullock in the starting lineup in his place is in no way a "like for like" swap—it's trading an apple for an orange.
Memory strains to find previous examples of when Carolina has lost a starter midway through the season and had to replace that player with a completely different kind of player. The case of Tom LaGarde and the 1977 Tar Heels came to mind (the Olympian and future NBA champion was lost 20 games into the season, to be replaced by freshman Rich Yonakor, with support from fellow rookies Steve Krafcisin and Jeff Wolf.) That team had enough talent and wherewithal to overcome the loss of LaGarde's 15 points a game and make it to the national championship game.
The parallels between 1977 and 2012 are obviously inexact, but the analogy is a useful reminder that if Carolina keeps playing, there's still no telling what it might accomplish. The most obvious result of the new lineup is that Carolina now fields a starting five that is more offensively balanced, due to Bullock's range. His presence will make it harder to collapse on the big guys, and means Harrison Barnes is not the only natural three-point shooter on the court at the start of the game. There certainly won't be many if any possessions when it looks like only three players really want to shoot the ball.
Bullock responded well to his opportunity to start Thursday, canning 3-5 three pointers and tallying 11 points overall in 33 minutes. Bullock was assertive offensively but also had good shot selection; importantly, he did not disrupt the overall offensive balance by using the ball at a dramatically higher rate than had Strickland this season. Carolina still wants to get the ball inside early and often, not look for the jump shot first, and Bullock showed Thursday he understands that—without being shy about taking the open shot when it presents itself.
Whether Bullock can continue to maintain productive efficiency while playing many more minutes than in the past is one key question raised by Strickland's absence. But most Tar Heels fans have rightly worried more about two other questions: how much Carolina will miss Strickland's defense on the perimeter, and whether Carolina can get competent backup play at point guard.
The two questions are linked insofar as Strickland was capable of guarding either the opposing shooting guard or the point guard, depending on who represented the biggest threat, which in turn contributed to the all-important aim of keeping Kendall Marshall out of significant foul trouble. Marshall is now going to have to guard the opposing point guard in pretty much all circumstances, and do so without getting in foul trouble and without letting his man control the game through penetration.
Carolina will suffer Strickland's absence when matched against teams with outstanding scoring guards (such as Duke)—I don't see any way around that fact. And as just mentioned, Strickland's versatility gave Roy Williams some options in how to assign matchups in particular games.
But Carolina can still be a good perimeter defensive team, if the players want to be. Bullock in fact has graded out very well on defensive charts this year. His combination of size and quickness gives him an ability to challenge three point shooters, take away crosscourt passes, and rebound his position well.
Certainly the post-Strickland Heels had an impressive defensive first half, holding State to 25 percent shooting and just 23 points, forcing nine turnovers and claiming 21 defensive rebounds while conceding just four offensive boards. That first half was as close to a lockdown as you are likely to see against a competent team. On the defensive issue, then, early returns suggest some grounds for optimism though more challenging tests lie ahead.
The backup point guard situation seems likely to be more of a game-to-game drama. All eyes were on Stilman White Thursday night to see how he might perform given the chance to be in with the starters with the game still in doubt. He responded well with a nice pass to Tyler Zeller for an assist, then hit a three to bring the house down in the second half before getting a little too happy on his next effort that caught nothing but backboard. Notably, State ran a play posting White up inside, which may happen more in the future.
With the crowd supporting White, it's reasonable to assume White will perform more steadily at home than on the road the rest of the way. For Roy Williams, it's a situation to be managed night to night, depending on game situation, when or whether Marshall shows signs of fatigue, and how White actually does on a given night. The games where he can make a good play or two off the bat, he's likely to play a bit more. Games where he struggles with turnovers or defensively, which almost certainly will come as well, will lead to a quicker hook. What almost certainly won't happen is for Williams to leave in White in tough situations for so long that it causes serious damage either to Carolina's standing on the scoreboard or White's own confidence.
All this assumes, of course, that Carolina doesn't have to deal with the Armageddon scenario: Marshall getting into serious foul trouble or worse yet, getting hurt. That worry has been with Carolina since the start of the season and will remain in the background until the season is over. I'm not sure there is much to be done other than hope it continues to stay in the background, rather than come to fruition.
In the meantime, the more experience White can get, the better. (That also goes for Desmond Hubert, who was quite impressive on Thursday night in his 13 minutes of action.) One anticipates White will get at least a few minutes and maybe even a bit more against Georgia Tech on Sunday, as the Tar Heels take the next step in constructing a revised, post-Strickland team identity.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.