And it will -- in more ways than one.
Strickland, a junior from Rahway, N.J., tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee early in the second half of UNC’s 82-68 victory at Virginia Tech on Thursday, the school confirmed Friday evening.
He will miss the rest of season, and that means eighth-ranked UNC must replace its fastest player, its best perimeter defender and back-up ballhandler -- as well as it’s starting ‘2’. How well the Tar Heels accomplish that will have a huge impact on its Final Four hopes.
“Any time a teammate goes down, especially one of our starters, we all have to pull together,’’ small forward Harrison Barnes said after Thursday’s victory. “Dexter has been playing really hard for us.”
With 16:44 left at Cassell Coliseum, Strickland’s right knee buckled when he was driving to the basket. He lay on the baseline in obvious pain before being helped to the bench, where medical staff iced, then bandaged, it.
He was limping around the locker room without help after the game, saying it hurt but trying to stay positive.
Tests Friday revealed the ACL tear.
“Positive thinking!” Strickland posted on his Twitter account Friday night. “Everything happens for a reason, God always has a plan! Thanks to everyone who is praying for me! I appreciate it!”
Described as a “tough little nut” earlier this season by UNC coach Roy Williams, it will take multiple players to replace everything Strickland does.
Sophomore guard Reggie Bullock will probably move up to the starting shooting guard slot, but he tends to look for his outside shot more than Strickland, who usually earned most of his 7.5 points per game in transition (which was why he was shooting a team-high 57 percent from the floor). Bullock’s defense has steadily improved this season, but it will have to be more of a focus with Strickland out.
Freshman point guard Stilman White, who has played sparingly, will likely need to play more minutes to spell starter Kendall Marshall, when possible. More than likely, though, Marshall, who is averaging a team-high 31.2 minutes, will need play more in tight games -- something he got used to once he became the starter last season. Which mean he will have to continue to stay healthy, and out of foul trouble. “I just have to do a good job of taking care of my body and getting ready to log a couple of more minutes,’’ Marshall said Thursday.
If Bullock moves into the starting five, the onus will be on freshman P.J. Hairston to return to his sparky ways off the bench. After some big games early, the sharpshooter has made only 4 of 21 shots in his past four games. Meanwhile, Justin Watts – a 6-foot-5 senior who has spent time backing up post players as well as the wings the last two seasons, will probably get more minutes at his natural position. Junior Leslie McDonald, one of the best outside shooters on the team last season, remains sidelined after his own knee injury last summer; Williams announced earlier this month that McDonald would likely redshirt the season.
Strickland, previously injured his right knee last year. In February, he said last season, he slightly tore his meniscus. He opted not to have surgery, playing on it the rest of the season. And ultimately, he said, he didn’t need surgery during the summer because his knee felt great without it.
This time, surgery will be necessary, although it has not yet been scheduled.
Williams was traveling, and was expected to issue a statement later Friday night.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.