UNC's Baby Blues
Thursday, February 2, 2006
CHAPEL HILL, N.C., Feb. 1 -- In less than two minutes of last Saturday's 86-69 victory over Arizona at Dean Smith Center, North Carolina freshman forward Danny Green typified the Tar Heels' enormous potential and their sometimes maddening inexperience.
Early in the second half, Green came off the bench and nailed a three-pointer. Then he threw the basketball into the stands on a wayward pass. Several seconds later, he blocked a three-point attempt by the Wildcats -- and then threw the ball away again. But before he was done, Green blocked a dunk attempt and made a three-pointer on the other end of the court that put North Carolina ahead by 14 points.
That is how this season has often played out for the defending national champion Tar Heels, who had to replace their top seven scorers from last season and returned only two experienced reserves from the team that beat Illinois in the national championship game in April. Four players from North Carolina's first NCAA championship team in 12 years -- point guard Raymond Felton, center Sean May and forwards Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams -- were among the first 14 selections of the NBA draft.
So as Roy Williams began his third season as coach of his alma mater, he faced what seemed like an insurmountable task. But entering Thursday night's game against Maryland at Comcast Center, the unranked Tar Heels remain in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament with a 12-5 record, 3-3 in the ACC.
They certainly have a special player in freshman center Tyler Hansbrough, who ranks fourth in the ACC in scoring with 18.2 points per game and tied for sixth in rebounding with 7.6. Hansbrough, from Poplar Bluff, Mo., has lived up to his billing as the media's choice for preseason newcomer of the year, leading the Tar Heels in scoring in 13 of 17 games.
"Having played pickup games with him during the summer and things like that, I knew he was going to be a beast," said senior forward David Noel, who averaged 3.9 points per game during the 2004-05 season, the lowest scoring average by a North Carolina leading returning scorer since at least the end of World War II. "He reminds me of a teammate I used to have: Sean May. He's athletic, very strong and has great hands."
Maryland Coach Gary Williams said he isn't surprised by Hansbrough's success and compared his early performance to that of former Terrapins all-American Joe Smith.
"Joe Smith was very inexperienced his freshman year here, and he was national freshman of the year," Williams said. "Some guys can come in and adjust right away. They might even play better in college than they do their senior year in high school, for whatever reason. Other guys, it takes them longer to adjust."
Williams said it isn't difficult to decipher which player the Tar Heels have built their offense around.
Hansbrough "gets the ball and tries to score every time," Williams said. "There is no catching the ball and kicking it out right away in the post. Maybe you can make him kick it out, but he is going to try to score first. And if he does shoot it, he's their best rebounder because he is going right after it. A lot of times I think he just tries to get the ball up at the rim and then follows it up to see if he can pound it in."
Hansbrough, 6 feet 9 and 235 pounds, has flourished even though he is constantly double-teamed by opponents. He said the added attention began during the Tar Heels' nonconference schedule in early December and intensified once ACC play began. After his team's recent slide, in which North Carolina lost three of four games before beating Arizona, Roy Williams said he battered Hansbrough during practices, thinking of every way an opponent could double- or triple-team him.
But Williams also put the onus on the Tar Heels' perimeter players. Too often, the coach said, North Carolina's other players didn't continue to move when Hansbrough got the basketball in the lane, leaving him nowhere to pass if he couldn't get off a shot. So the Tar Heels spent much of last week working on their spacing and cuts and motion.
"When Tyler gets double-teammed, we've got to keep moving and make cuts to give him outlets," junior guard Wes Miller said. "We've all got to help him out."
Miller, a sharp-shooting guard from Charlotte who played at James Madison University before transferring to North Carolina, turned 23 the day of the Arizona game, making him the team's oldest player. Williams has started three freshmen at times this season -- Hansbrough, wing player Marcus Ginyard from Bishop O'Connell and guard Bobby Frasor. Green, from North Babylon, N.Y., is the top reserve.
The Tar Heels' youth has showed. They lost badly at Southern California in December and lost to Miami and Boston College at home, after going undefeated at Smith Center last season. North Carolina ranks tied for ninth in the ACC in turnover margin and averaged 20 turnovers in its previous nine games before committing 13 against Arizona. When the Tar Heels lost three of four games last month, some questioned whether their youth was catching up with them.
"When I was 18, 19 years old, I never got tired," Williams said. "That's what I tell them. It's all a state of mind. I try to convince them they're not sore, they're not tired. I do believe if they listen to that garbage, they start believing it."