This is especially true in the case of experienced players who are not still on the rising curve in which additional experience can lead to breakthrough performance improvements.
Through the first 13 games of the season, Dexter Strickland averaged a respectable 9.4 points a game on 47 percent FG shooting, capped by an outstanding 16-point effort against UNLV on December 29.
But in the first six games of league play, Strickland is averaging just 4.3 points a game while shooting 9-29 (31%) from the field, with zero made three pointers. In no league game has Strickland tallied more than two field goals or more than six points total, despite being on the court 26 minutes a game during this stretch.
In contrast, over the same stretch of games, P.J. Hairston has averaged 12.2 points a game in 22.5 minutes per contest, including 15 made three point shots. Hairston’s effective field goal percentage (counting three pointers as 150% of two point field goals) in ACC play is 57 percent.
Many observers have speculated that Strickland just isn’t the same player since returning from injury. Certainly Strickland doesn’t seem to be finishing quite as explosively in fast break situations as pre-injury, but he’s still well above-average in that category. The bigger issue is simply that the cast around him in his senior season is much different than during his sophomore and junior years.
Playing alongside Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller, Strickland was a good fit. He wasn’t needed as a primary option in the halfcourt offense, but he could get baskets in transition and by picking his spots and taking advantage of attention given to others. His midrange game was increasingly consistent, and he was a threat to drive to the hoop if given space. His defensive abilities also helped cover Marshall’s relative softness in that area. Having Strickland in at the start of the game helped set the tone, and with that crew there was relatively little chance of the team getting off to a slow offensive start at the beginnings of games.
The 2013 Tar Heels are a different team with different needs. For one thing, it’s a much younger and more insecure team that has so far shown no ability to rally successfully from early large deficits, but has on occasion played surprisingly well after establishing early leads. The way this Tar Heel team starts games, especially on the road, is more important than in most past seasons.
Second, starting a shooting guard who is a limited shooter has different consequences when your starting center is Desmond Hubert and not Tyler Zeller, and when your point guard is Marcus Paige and not Kendall Marshall. The current starting lineup is nearly totally dependent on James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock to get points, with occasional help from Paige on the nights when the ball is going in for the Iowa rookie. Opponents are aware of this and can adjust accordingly, as N.C. State did on Saturday by going straight at McAdoo defensively and getting him into early foul trouble.
This change in context explains most of the reason why Strickland is struggling relative to a year ago in ACC play. It also is the most probable reason why during ACC play Strickland has been prone to periodically forcing plays or shots that weren’t there—plays you would not expect your experienced senior to make and plays Strickland had almost eliminated from his game in his junior season. Two costly examples from Saturday night were an ill-judged pass to Hubert in transition that led to a turnover just 90 seconds into the contest, and then a panicked three point attempt under duress less than two minutes later. Those plays smacked of trying to make something happen outside what’s really there or one’s comfort zone.
Hence, the time is ripe for some role redefinition. I believe Dexter Strickland still is a valuable member of this Tar Heel team and still has some big plays and big games ahead of him in the final two months of his college career. Moreover, even recently, Strickland has been doing some good things: 12 assists the past two games, seven steals total in the home wins over Maryland and Georgia Tech.
But what would make most sense at this point in time is for Strickland to be treated as primarily a point guard, and to have Strickland compete with Paige for playing time at that position the rest of the year. Times will arise when it will make sense to play Paige and Strickland together for a few possessions or minutes here or there, but the default lineup should have at the 2 (shooting guard) and 3 (small forward) positions any two of these three players: Hairston, Bullock and J.P. Tokoto. (Leslie McDonald could yet earn his way back into the mix, but all things considered Tokoto has clearly earned the right to be ahead of McDonald in the rotation.)
Strickland is entitled to some senior deference, but the statistics over the first six league games, as well as the fact that this Carolina team has shown a propensity to get blown out of the gate against better quality opponents, tell their own story. Numerous other Tar Heel players have lost their starting positions midway through their senior seasons, including in 1993 when Donald Williams replaced Henrik Rodl as the starting shooting guard. (Good move, Dean.) Roy Williams has also shown a willingness in the past to put new faces in the starting lineup this time of year (Wes Miller in ’06, Kendall Marshall in ’11), to excellent effect.
The most important consideration needs to be the same consideration that made Strickland a starter in the first place—what blend of players would give this particular team the best chance of success. The evidence strongly suggests that Hairston needs more time, that Carolina needs more scoring options in the opening minutes, that Strickland himself will play his best out of the point position, and that Paige would benefit from explicit, serious competition at the point.
Does Carolina needs this change to have a good chance to beat Boston College on Tuesday or the following home games against Virginia Tech and Wake? Probably not. Just about any plausible lineup and rotation Roy Williams fields should be capable of getting wins in all three of those games.
Nonetheless, it would be a good idea to redefine roles sooner than later, to give the new rotation time to gel before running into the toughest two-game stretch of the year—at Miami and at Duke. The track record of the current group against opponents of that caliber on the road is not good, and if Duke can lose by 27 at Miami, certainly this Carolina team could too. The purpose of redefining roles for the second half of the season is not to make Carolina look better against relatively weaker teams, but to increase the likelihood the Tar Heels can be competitive going forward against the league’s strongest teams—even on the road.
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.