NCAA tournament: Hansbrough handles pressure
By Aaron Beard
DETROIT ó Tyler Hansbrough never wanted to dwell on pressure to lead North Carolina to a national championship. He tried to ignore the expectations to raise his level of play despite being last season’s national player of the year.
Though he insists he came back for his senior season because he enjoyed college life and wanted his diploma, there’s no denying he desperately wanted another shot at a title.
Now he’s back in the Final Four, the final weekend of a college career in which he has gone from always heralded to often criticized ó and maybe a little unappreciated ó by the same people who have demanded so much from him.
No matter how many times he says it, Hansbrough knows all anybody wants to talk about before Saturday’s national semifinal against Villanova is the missing line on his resume.
Coming out of Detroit with a championship trophy could be the difference between being viewed as one of the college game’s all-time greats or as an individual player who set numerous records yet fell short of the ultimate goal.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure just because a lot of people would say it would be a failure to come back if you didn’t win a national championship,” he said. “But I didn’t come back just to win a national championship.”
He set the ACC’s career scoring record in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Also this year, he broke both the scoring and rebounding records for the storied North Carolina program by passing big names such as Phil Ford and Sam Perkins, respectively.
He has led the Tar Heels (32-4) to three straight ACC regular-season championships, won back-to-back league tournament titles as a sophomore and junior and got North Carolina to the Final Four last year.
But things seemed to get tougher for him after he decided to put off the NBA for a year to return to Chapel Hill. After hearing nothing but praise for his iron-willed determination and gritty work ethic, he heard criticism for not putting up the same numbers even though his stats were similar to last year.
“I think people are criticizing me more this year than they ever have,” he said. “I think it’s just because people have such high expectations or, like someone said before, a lot of people don’t like me. But I don’t really care about me. I’ll play my game and I think it’s effective either way.”
True, his scoring, rebounding and shooting percentage have dipped slightly from last year. He was constantly the focus of defenses that collapsed on him inside to limit his shots. He got the foul line even less despite taking plenty of contact and hard hits, so much so that it’s common to see him looking for a contact lens that’s been knocked out of his eye in a tussle under the basket. There was also a game at Miami in which he played through what team doctors thought might be a concussion.
And yet, he led the ACC in scoring for a second straight year at nearly 21 points and had 11 double-doubles.
“Someone does things at a certain level, unless we’re reminded, we kind of take him for granted,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “And that happens at almost every level of performance. You go and hear Pavarotti sing, and he’s wonderful. You go and hear Pavarotti a couple more times, he’s good, he’s good. Pretty soon, Pavarotti’s great, but you don’t talk about him like the first time anymore. And I think that happens to players, too.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright, who will have to devise a way to slow Hansbrough on Saturday, felt the same way.
“It’s almost like he’s become underappreciated,” Wright said. “He’s really become taken for granted by the country and the media. But I’m sure not by their team. He’s just done it the same way for so long. You count on him for a double-double, he’s going to make his free throws. But we’re not losing his importance to that team.”
He’s failed to score in double figures only nine times in his career, and two of those games came immediately after the broken nose he suffered on a hard foul by Duke’s Gerald Henderson in 2007. The most recent came during last weekend’s 72-60 win against Oklahoma; he finished with eight points and six rebounds while getting in early foul trouble defending Blake Griffin, who has won several of this season’s national player of the year awards.
Not counting those two games with the broken nose, Hansbrough has come back to score at least 21 points in the game immediately following a single-digit scoring performance ó meaning he could be in line for a big day against the Wildcats.
A couple more of those, and Hansbrough could finally have the championship he covets.
“People are all talking about somebody else this year, and last year was his time in the light,” said senior Bobby Frasor, who lives with Hansbrough in an off-campus house. “I think Tyler still deserves some of that recognition because how often do you get a national player of the year coming back for his senior year? To get criticized for that and have people picking part his game, I don’t think it’s fair.
“He can stick it to everyone who criticized his game if he can hang a banner and put a ring on his finger.”