By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009
DETROIT, April 5 -- Senior Travis Walton likes to talk confidently about the talent on his Michigan State team, about how many of the Spartans were recruited by other elite programs and about how the Spartans would not have been blown out in their December meeting against North Carolina had they been at full strength.
His tone changes while talking about Ty Lawson, the North Carolina point guard who the Spartans will face in Monday's national title game at Ford Field. When asked exactly what Michigan State could do to stop Lawson's dribble penetration, Walton did not hesitate.
"You've got to pray," Walton said.
Tyler Hansbrough is the most recognizable face on North Carolina, and the barrage of three-pointers by Danny Green and Wayne Ellington helped the Tar Heels pull away from Villanova in Saturday's semifinal. But on a team laden with future NBA players, there is no more important catalyst than Lawson, the Clinton native and irrepressible force in North Carolina's high-powered offense.
Since returning to the court after missing three games because of a right big toe injury, Lawson has made 60 percent of his three-point shots, averaged nearly 21 points and collected 28 assists offset by just six turnovers in four NCAA tournament games. His coaches see him penetrating even when there is no room to do so. Opponents see a point guard who has no peer in today's college game.
"He is almost impossible to contain," Oklahoma Coach Jeff Capel said.
When asked if any guard has been able to stop Lawson from penetrating this season, Joe Holladay, a North Carolina assistant, said: "Not even close. He has had his way against anyone guarding him."
Walton, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year, likely will chase Lawson around the court Monday. But North Carolina forward Deon Thompson said, "I don't think Ty is worried about it at all. I have not seen anyone stop him."
Because most fans here will be rooting against North Carolina, and because Lawson said he felt some mild dizziness in Saturday's game, one reporter even asked the player whether he was concerned about being poisoned the night before the national title game. Lawson laughed the question off and said he has total confidence in the chef preparing the team meal.
"I think everyone is seeing me at my best right now," Lawson said.
A tremendous junior season has put Lawson in rarefied company. He became the first point guard to win ACC player of the year honors since former North Carolina star Phil Ford in 1978. And his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.45 to 1 this season is the best in ACC history.
Lawson returned to school this season because he did not feel he was certain to be a top 15 pick in the 2008 NBA draft and wanted another chance to win the national title with a star-studded group of Tar Heels. But the season has not been easy.
By early January, North Carolina was 0-2 in the ACC, and Lawson became a specific target of criticism after fellow ACC guards Tyrese Rice of Boston College and Jeff Teague of Wake Forest scored 25 and 34 points, respectively, in wins over the Tar Heels.
Lawson said he took the criticism personally because, at times, he is his own worst critic. He was not shooting the ball well -- 7 for 25 in those first two ACC games -- and knew it. So he used his security code to the Smith Center to walk in at 2 or 3 in the morning and shoot 300 jumpers at a time.
"You saw the articles and heard the talk and the whole bit after the 0-2 start and everybody complaining about [Lawson] wasn't as good," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "He gets a lot of criticism after Tyrese Rice and Jeff Teague, but he doesn't have to take a backseat to anybody. He is tougher now mentally. He is tougher physically."
Then came the team practice March 6, when he injured his toe by running into the basket support. Holladay said he was concerned about Lawson returning to form for the tournament, especially after he struggled recovering from a high ankle sprain as a sophomore.
Lawson tried to play in the regular season finale against Duke and then missed the ACC tournament, in which North Carolina edged Virginia Tech and then lost to Florida State. The Tar Heels were far less dangerous in transition without Lawson pushing the ball because opponents could guard Ellington and Green on the wings and not worry as much about a point guard racing upcourt in a blur.
"We score 70 without him and 90 with him," Holladay said. "Whether he scores two or 20, there is a 20-point difference because of what he does. . . . He is the best."
Lawson said he has "most" of his speed back and that his toe is close to 100 percent. But when Holladay recently told Lawson he needed to do a better job of getting over the top of a screen, Lawson answered, "Coach, I can't push off."
Lawson said he still undergoes rehab treatment for the toe. And Holladay said he is able to play on game nights because he is limited in practice and then rests a day after playing. But it's not like Lawson had considered holding back in what almost certainly is his final NCAA tournament.
He dreamed of playing in the tournament since he was a 3-year-old shooting on his mini-court. He would toss in layups and outside shots, acting as if he had made the game-winning shot in the national championship game.
Eighteen years later, on the verge of his first national championship game, little has changed.
When retelling the story of his youth, Lawson smiled and said, "I have been waiting for this."