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He makes the Heels click

Intensity is Hansbrough's game

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / March 18, 2008

He is not the quickest player. Nor the strongest. Nor the best shooter. Nor the best rebounder. But if you need a game won, need someone to make a stop, score a basket, just make a play, than you want Tyler Hansbrough on your side.

It's always been that way, dating back to the days in Poplar Bluff, Mo., when he was leading his high school team to back-to-back state championships.

It was that way when he was the first freshman in Atlantic Coast Conference history to earn consensus All-American honors.

It was that way Saturday when the 6-foot-9-inch North Carolina junior scored the final 2 of his 26 points with .8 seconds left to give the Tar Heels a 68-66 victory over Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament semifinals. And it was that way Sunday when his 18 points and 11 rebounds were primary factors in Carolina's 86-81 tourna ment championship victory over Clemson.

Hansbrough, who will become a three-time All-American this season and is the likely National Player of the Year, not surprisingly was voted the ACC tournament MVP. He is a big reason the Tar Heels are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which begins for them Friday in Raleigh, N.C., against the winner of tonight's play-in game between Coppin State and Mount St. Mary's.

Just who is this kid, who has been so good that last week Carolina announced that his No. 50 jersey will be retired when his career in Chapel Hill is over? (And if you believe the chatter coming from Hansbrough, that may not happen until after next season.)

In some ways, he is still very much a kid. He says his favorite food is Cap'n Crunch, his favorite television show is "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," his favorite website is YouTube, and that he has 2,000 songs on his iPod.

When Carolina announced that the jersey would be retired, coach Roy Williams, who recruited Hansbrough and has watched him develop the last three years, pointed out one of Hansbrough's key assets.

"I've had more gifted players," said Williams. "But I've never had a player who wants it more. I am so lucky to be his coach. For the rest of my career, I will be able to look up into that first row and see his jersey. And I know that will bring a big smile to my face."

The things people talk about most regarding Hansbrough are his work ethic and his competitive nature.

"He is relentless," said Boston College coach Al Skinner. "He just comes after you all the time."

"It's pretty much in my whole family," said Hansbrough. "Both of my brothers are really competitive. I have grown up in a competitive way. When I was young, my dad always played with a group of his friends and I watched them playing. My brothers and I started and that is where I started getting really competitive."

When Hansbrough was a skinny, 6-7, 160-pound AAU player, he wanted to be bigger, stronger, and tougher. He worked and ate and worked some more and turned himself into the 6-9, 245-pound crazy man who leads the top-ranked team in the nation.

He will push and shove and run and shoot and do whatever is necessary to get the Tar Heels to the next round and then the next round and then the next.

Some have seen Hansbrough take full-length dives for loose balls and compared him to the grandmaster of that style of play, Dave Cowens. Not that Hansbrough is in Cowens's class as a player - at least not yet - but the intensity quotient is there.

Take, for example, the day in the Carolina weight room when Hansbrough was pushing himself to the max, grunting as he lifted. He finished with one final yell, prompting the team's strength and conditioning coordinator, Jonas Sahratian, to say, "You're psycho."

Thus the legend of "Psycho T" was born, and it has grown steadily. There have been stories about the competitive Ping-Pong matches Hansbrough plays with his buddies back in Missouri, the ones with a rule variation: The first player to lose 2 points in a row must take off his shirt and allow the winner to take dead aim with a Ping-Pong ball. "You don't want to lose," said Hansbrough, who assures that getting hit at point-blank range does hurt and leaves a welt.

The game Hansbrough is focused on now is played with a bigger ball. The Tar Heels are not just the No. 1 seed in the East but the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament. They survived a hectic and competitive ACC tournament, which they believe was a good staging area for the next level of competition.

"It prepares us for the NCAAs because we know in the tournament every team is going to be tough," said Hansbrough. "These [ACC] teams played really tough and they were really aggressive. I think we did well, and that's the kind of atmosphere we'll face in the tournament."

The Tar Heels caught a break by being seeded No. 1 in the East, which put them in Raleigh for the first and second rounds, then in Charlotte for the regionals.

Not that any of this matters to Psycho T, whose younger brother Ben will be playing for Mississippi State in Little Rock, Ark., against Oregon Friday night in a South Regional first-round game.

What matters is that there will be a basketball court, a basketball, and a game to win.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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