Strickland strictly offense? No longer

NEWARK, N.J. -- North Carolina sophomore guard Dexter Strickland wasn't trying to brag. But as the New Jersey native began rattling off the list of players he's had the daunting task of defending over the last few years, it certainly sounded that way.

"I've guarded Brandon Jennings [at the Adidas Nations Camp], Tyreke Evans, [his former St. Patrick teammates] Kyrie Irving, Michael Gilchrist and Corey Fisher [in practice]," Strickland said. "I pretty much have experience guarding the best players. I've always went up against the best."

Well, not always. There was a time when Strickland wasn't fully committed to playing defense. A time when all he cared about was scoring points and making highlight-reel shots. That will be in the past when he goes toe-to-toe with Kentucky freshman guard Brandon Knight, who has already hit a pair of game-winning shots in the NCAA tournament, in the Elite Eight on Sunday afternoon at the Prudential Center.

"I can honestly say I wasn't always a good defensive player," said Strickland, who helped UNC limit Washington's Isaiah Thomas and Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom to a combined 7-for-24 shooting in the Tar Heels' last two victories in the Big Dance.

"I was all about offense in high school, but when I came here I had to learn that that's not what you should only be focused on. I just think that our coaching staff has done a great job of putting me in the right position on defense."

That may be true. It's just that Strickland doesn't always follow orders. But his instincts -- and speed and quickness -- make up for his mental miscues.

"In defensive drills, he'll take the wrong path and still beat the guy to the spot because he's so fast," UNC junior forward Tyler Zeller said. "I'll say to him, 'Dexter, you were supposed to go under that screen and you went over it and around." But I'm like, 'Eh, whatever, you're there.'"

As Strickland will tell you time and time again, it was Tar Heels coach Roy Williams who convinced him to commit to being a better defender. Otherwise, Williams told him, he wasn't going to play.

"I remember coming in, Coach used to always get on me about defense," said Strickland, who studies the way Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul defend to become better a defender himself. "He always got on me, and that motivated me to step up my game because if I was on the court playing defense, it would transition to offense and enable me to stay on the court longer."

While Strickland is known for his on-the-ball defensive prowess, as well as his ability to fight through screens and deny the ball from wing players, arguably his best attribute is his ability to step into passing lanes, create steals and turn those steals into transition finishes in the open court.

The 20-year-old, who was born in Newark and raised between Rahway, Hillside and Linden, had a season-high four steals during UNC's 81-63 rout of Marquette in the Sweet 16 on Friday night, the final two ending in a layup and an emphatic dunk.

"He's very, very impressive," Zeller said. "He's so athletic. He makes it very difficult for guys to catch the ball and score. It's amazing to me, though, how quick he is."

Added sophomore forward John Henson: "He's one of the quickest, fastest dudes I've ever really played with. When he gets that ball going full speed down court, he's tough to stop. That's a gift he was given from the man upstairs, and he uses it to his advantage."

Strickland said he's able to gamble on defense because he knows Henson will be able to help from the weak side on the interior.

"We actually joke around a little bit, because if my guy beats me, I'm pretty sure John -- nine times out of 10 -- is going to block his shot," Strickland said.

Still, the onus is on Strickland to keep Knight in check for 40 minutes Sunday.

"He's special," said Strickland, who didn't guard Knight when the teams met Dec. 4 but will have to do so this time around because Larry Drew II left the team. "He likes to drive [the Wildcats use the infamous dribble-drive offense under coach John Calipari]. We're going to have to play a lot of support defense."

Knight said "it doesn't matter," who guards him. But Calipari, who had seen Strickland play while recruiting Gilchrist, was highly complementary of his skills on D.

"He's long, athletic, tough, quick, gets in a wide stance, stands his ground. He's just terrific," Calipari said.

For all the future NBA talent that will be out on the court Sunday, Strickland may be the most important player of them all. He just doesn't get the recognition he deserves because the Tar Heels are carried offensively by heralded freshman Harrison Barnes, Zeller and Henson.

"He's meant a lot to our team," Henson said. "He's our best defender and he doesn't get as much credit as he should. But if he keeps doing what he's doing, it's gonna come. That's what I told him. And I think he'll be all right."

If Strickland can shut down Knight, he'll be more than all right. He'll be ecstatic.

Because he'll likely be headed from his hometown to Houston for the Final Four.

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPN NewYork.com.