First Posted: 1/15/2009
OK, I’ll admit I was wrong in my early season assessment of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill men’s basketball team.
They’re not soft.
They’ve shown resilience and determination over the last four games that I’ll put up there with any UNC squad I’ve seen in the last 20 years, most of which can be credited to the Atlas-like shoulders of junior center Tyler Hansbrough – I say “Atlas-like” because Hansbrough has been the singular force carrying his teammates, plus the hopes and aspirations of Tar Heel Nation, on his shoulders in the four games missed by injured point guard Ty Lawson. Over those four games, Hansbrough has averaged 28 points and 11 rebounds — a stretch that I believe has secured the kid from Poplar Bluff, Mo., the National Player of the Year award.
Lawson, who continues to sit, could take a lesson on intestinal fortitude from his indomitable teammate. And that’s not just me talking; Roy Williams himself has called out Lawson, wondering aloud why it has taken so long for perhaps the nation’s best point guard to come back from the ankle sprain he suffered at Florida State on Feb. 3.
Williams either has history’s greatest poker face and is saving Lawson for an emotional return against Duke at Cameron in the final regular season game, or Lawson is protecting himself for an early entry into the NBA.
I certainly hope it’s not the latter.
Can you imagine Hansbrough allowing ruminations about his draft status keeping him out of a game? High ankle sprain? You’d have to cut his foot off at the ankle to keep him from the hardwood. And then he’d probably ask the trainer for extra tape and a prosthetic.
I was also wrong about Hansbrough’s future as a professional basketball player, as I believe are most NBA scouts. He’s not the journeyman or “spark plug” off the bench that I and others have surmised he will turn out to be once he departs Chapel Hill. In recent weeks, Hansbrough has displayed eye-popping athleticism and an ability to defend on the wing, as well as an improving mid-range jumper, that I simply didn’t believe he had.
And I’ve never seen a player with his desire to win.
Not the great Michael Jordan; not John “Mr. Floorburn” Havlicek; not Magic Johnson; not even the relentless Moses Malone.
The only current or former Tar Heel who I believe is even in the conversation with Hansbrough when it comes to pound-for-pound competitiveness is my all-time favorite UNC grad — George Lynch.
When Carolina played Michigan for the national championship in 1993, it wasn’t Herman Munster-lookalike Eric Montross or the silky-shooting Donald Williams that Duke’s Coach K told Michigan head coach Steve Fisher he needed to neutralize in order to win – it was Lynch, or as K called him, UNC’s “hoss.”
Lynch laid it all out on the floor every second of every minute of every game, just like Hansbrough – except Lynch, who had a decent pro career – wasn’t as athletic as Hansbrough, nor anywhere near as strong inside.
While I don’t think Hansbrough will be a 10-time All-Star, I believe he will be a difference maker, someone who will eventually earn a starting spot and will become perhaps the most hated player in the NBA because of his relentless style – a quality which I predict will make him the league leader in the recipient of flagrant fouls and intentional elbows.
That being said, in order to flourish in the pros, I think Hansbrough needs to be coached by someone who will love his pugnaciousness and be patient with his offensive development, someone like San Antonio’s Greg Popovich or Utah’s Jerry Sloan