Dexter Strickland’s collegiate career has been what can only be defined as a roller coaster ride. Dexter committed to North Carolina in January of 2008 and was considered one of the most dangerous and highly touted wing prospects in the country. Strickland was a product of St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth, NJ where he led the team to three consecutive state titles as a varsity player alongside current NBA standouts Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrest.
Strickland’s forte was, and still is, his athleticism and speed. In high school he was a nightmare in transition and had the ability to finish with both power and finesse at the rim. Dexter was also very versatile and could play both guard positions even though he was primarily listed as a two on the floor. He could handle the ball and effectively get into the lane for a layup or he could spot up for a jump shot. His skill set had coaches nationwide salivating and he was heavily recruited because of it. Most recruiting boards had Dexter listed as a consistent high four star or five star player and ESPN had him listed as the #27 ranked player in the country; ranking him ahead of guys like Thomas Robinson, Royce White, Christian Watford and Derrick Williams. Needless to say, Dexter was one of the country’s premier players at that level.
Coaches like Billy Donovan of Florida and Tom Izzo of Michigan State tried to convince Dexter that their programs were the best fit for him, but at the end of the day, he chose Roy Williams and North Carolina as his destination joining John Henson as the second commit of a five man class that also included current Tar Heel, Leslie McDonald and Travis and David Wear who both transferred to UCLA after their freshmen seasons. UNC just made sense for Dexter. They played up tempo basketball that thrived on getting out in transition, they had a good core of young talent that was among the best in the country and they had a winning tradition that was highlighted by a national championship during the spring before he enrolled on campus. Dexter was a transition genius, used to sharing the spotlight with top talent and, most importantly, accustomed to winning. It all seemed too perfect.
Unfortunately, Dexter’s freshmen season was far from it. The highly touted freshmen class didn’t adjust to the college style of play the way Roy and his staff felt that they would and injuries to star big men Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller really prohibited the Tar Heels and Strickland from ever hitting their stride. 2010 saw a 16-16 season, a sub .500 record in ACC play and a NIT berth for the defending champs in what will go down as Roy Williams most unsuccessful season by far at North Carolina and most likely in his entire career. A silver lining was provided somewhat when Carolina made a run in the NIT all the way to the finals before falling to Dayton in Madison Square Garden. Strickland was a big contributor in the wins leading up to the final averaging a little over 7 ppg in about 20 minutes of action per game.
His sophomore season brought along renewed hope and optimism with the #1 ranked recruiting class, led by Harrison Barnes, coming in. Dexter finally had a healthy low post and more talent around him at point guard and on the wings giving him every opportunity to flourish in his new starting role for North Carolina. Dexter benefitted greatly from his year of experience and the new roster because his numbers increased and his overall production began to rise. What really stood out in his game was his vast improvement on the defensive side of the basketball. Strickland was often turned to as the guy who locked down the opposing team’s best shooter and force turnovers. His defensive prowess really helped return the Tar Heel transition game to form that had been so potent only a couple years prior. Strickland’s play helped lead yet another young Tar Heel team to an ACC regular season title, a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and an eventual Elite 8 run. Needless to say, 2011 produced much improvement for a team that had been the NIT runner up just the year before and without Dexter, they would not have been as successful.
In his junior season, Dex was playing, in my mind, the best basketball of his career. He was as tenacious as he’d ever been on defense, much improved with his ball handling, got to the bucket with ease, and was an absolute force in transition. Things were looking up for a player that had been put under much scrutiny and criticism early in his career, but this season really looked to be his coming out party and the Heels were poised to make a run towards yet another championship. Then, the Tar Heels went to Blacksburg, VA for a game with the Hokies of Virginia Tech. Early in the second half, in what was already looking like a cake walk for the Heels, Strickland was once again leading the charge in transition and his knee buckled by the basket causing him to tear his ACL and consequently ending in what was turning out to be a huge season for Strickland. Dexter would have to sit on the sidelines and watch his Tar Heels fall short of their title hopes after losing to a Kansas team led by Wooden Award finalist Thomas Robinson (remember, Dexter was a higher rated player out of high school) in the Elite 8 yet again.
Now we are entering what will be the final stretch of games in Dexter Strickland’s college career. It’s more than admirable how Dexter has handled the adversity of losing a team to the NBA and starting from scratch a year later. This time he served as the leader. He came back from injury not worried about his stats, but just about the team getting it done on the court. With the Tar Heels landing a #3 seed in the ACC Tournament and in good position to make the Big Dance next week, Dexter has more than delivered. His stats offensively and defensively may have dipped from his sophomore and junior seasons, but Dexter has vastly improved as a facilitator on the court continues to display proven leadership on and off the floor.
In what will be Dexter’s final chance at postseason glory in a Tar Heel uniform, I can’t think of a player, more deserving than him, to possess those accolades. For a kid that has been through all the ups and downs you can possibly go through without ever losing faith or doubt in the program or the system, only a deep run in March seems to be a fitting way for Dexter to end his time in Chapel Hill. I certainly hope that he’s able to get it.