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** The most important news of the day came midway through the presser when Williams said that he expects junior guard Dexter Strickland (ACL) and freshman guard Marcus Paige (broken foot) to be ready by the start of practice in October. The duo represents UNC’s top-two options at point guard following Kendall Marshall’s early departure to the NBA.
Strickland was cleared to start running two weeks ago and has just recently gained further permission to work on his shooting.
“Dexter is being released now to shoot jump shots, but no sharp cuts, no playing, but just to do a little bit of different running and jumping on his knee,” Williams said. “I would expect by August that Dexter would be released for everything, knock on wood, as long as everything keeps going in the right direction.”
** Marshall. Ty Lawson. Raymond Felton.
The ghosts of those Tar Heel greats still run rampant around the Smith Center hallways, creating a thick atmosphere of expectation for any incoming point guard at UNC. Larry Drew couldn’t handle that level of pressure, but Williams has a proven track record of bringing the right point guard in for the job.
“I think you always worry some, but I’ve got a great deal of confidence in Marcus being really good,” Williams said. “He’s got to get healthy. He broke his foot in the McDonald’s All-American game, so he’s had the surgery, but everything has gone very well and [the freshmen] will be [here] in six or seven days and I think he’ll be able to go in our work outs and pick up games, but there’s no question we’re going to ask him to do a lot, but I think he’s really going to be a good player.”
** Paige will join J.P. Tokoto, Joel James and Brice Johnson as incoming freshmen that will be called upon early to contribute for North Carolina. The early departures of Marshall, Harrison Barnes and John Henson, along with the graduation of Tyler Zeller, leave Reggie Bullock as the lone returning starter.
“I think that a year ago sitting here I thought there was a great chance we’d lose Harrison [Barnes] and a great chance we could lose John [Henson], but I didn’t think at this moment that we would lose Kendall [Marshall] even though I thought Kendall was eventually going to be a NBA player,” Williams said. “To lose those three and [Zeller] also changes our team drastically to say the least and it makes the four freshmen a lot more important and they’re going to have to be able to play quicker.
“We’ve got nine guys here, counting Dexter [Strickland], who has not been released to play yet, so those guys are going to have to step up and be an important part of our team.”
** Regarding James, the once 310-pound-plus center is now down to 260 pounds and showcasing his new and improved physique on his Twitter feed.
“He’s a big rascal, who’s gotten a lot less big,” Williams said.
What has impressed Williams the most, however, is not the weight loss, but the reason behind the drop in poundage. James decided for himself that it was time to lose the weight, just like he made a conscious effort as a ninth-grader to improve his academics so that he could make a better life for himself.
There was no one behind him, pushing and encouraging to make those changes. Those are big steps for people of any age to make, let alone a young high school kid who had the athletic ability to skate by on talent.
James has plenty of potential on the basketball court, but as Williams stressed on Thursday, he still has a lot of growing to do.
“He’s only played for a couple of years,” Williams said. “He does have size. When he was here on his official visit, they played a pickup game and ‘Z’ told me that he hit him as hard as anybody had ever hit him during his college career. He’s got a load, there’s no question. When he whacks you, you’re going to know you’ve been hit. We have a tremendous need for size. I think he can do some good things for us. Maybe it’s all dreams and hopes, but we’ll see when he gets here.”
** Williams was adamant that the academic fraud situation facing the University’s African-American studies department will not affect the basketball program.
“I strongly feel that that's not a basketball issue,” he said. “I'm in charge of the basketball program as much as the chancellor and the athletic director allow me to be. It's not a basketball issue, regardless of what comes out.
“Am I going to be interested? You're darn right. Am I going to be sad if some negative thing comes out? You're darn right. But -- I think the way you phrased it, am I worried about it? I'm worried about it from a university issue but not from a basketball issue.”
** Finally, while a segment of the North Carolina fan base rolled their eyes and shook their heads after hearing McDonald tell reporters last week that he plans on playing in the N.C. Pro-Am this summer – the same event where he tore his ACL last July – Williams said that he didn’t have any reservations about the junior guard participating.
“You always wonder, ‘Well, he got hurt there,’ but I’ve never been one of those guys,” Williams said. “Guys can get hurt walking across the street.”
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