Marshall may be the nations best passer

DEAN SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL—Basketball coaches frequently utter clichés like “When you shoot terribly from the floor, it’s very difficult to win the game.”

But North Carolina defeated Miami on Tuesday night despite shooting 45 percent from the field and 13 percent on three-pointers—and it wasn’t difficult, either.

The Tar Heels brought tremendous energy to the defensive end of the court and smothered the Hurricanes 73-56. Carolina held Miami to 42 percent from the field and just 19 percent on threes, denying an experienced backcourt clean opportunities and forcing the Canes’ frontcourt into very low-percentage attempts.

You haven’t read Dexter Strickland’s name featured in this space often this season, but he took possession of this contest early and never relinquished emotional control. Strickland has fallen into “other starter” status due to the eminence of his teammates, not unlike Deon Thompson in 2008-09.

For more perspective, consider that Kendall Marshall—widely regarded as the fourth-best starter—recently was named a finalist for the Bob Cousy award honoring the nation’s best point guard.

Strickland always has earned Roy Williams’ praise as the team’s best perimeter defender, but against Miami he contributed valuable offense as well. The game’s pace was frenetic throughout the first half and at times veered out of control, both teams shooting too quickly and forcing the action.

And yet, that kind of chaos fosters the environment where Strickland thrives as a scorer. When possessions change hands rapidly, transition defense tends to break down and seams open that create opportunities for slashers to attack the basket. Strickland’s offense occurs almost entirely at close-range—he still has not made a three-pointer this season—and thus he enjoyed a relative explosion of 14 points.

Marshall amassed a surprising, 12-point scoring total as well. Against both Boston College last weekend now Miami, he clearly was more aggressive seeking his own shot. Like Strickland, he does most of his work on drives, though the slower-footed point guard relies on deception more than quickness.

The backcourt starters’ anemic offense has been a season-long concern, but their contributions proved vital against Miami. Carolina’s wings shot the ball terribly, no way around it, as Harrison Barnes (six points, 2-for-12 shooting), Reggie Bullock (five points, 2-for-6) and P.J. Hairston (three points, 1-for-6) all struggled to find the mark.

Carolina utilized its size advantage to control the backboards 45-29, continuing to improve an area that plagued the team earlier this season. The frontcourt duo, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, combined for 24 rebounds.

After nine consecutive home games that spanned five weeks, the Tar Heels finally ship out for the road this weekend. Carolina will tackle defense-minded Florida State in Tallahassee on Saturday, then head to Virginia Tech next week. Click here for the UNC/Miami box score.