Freshmen Aiding UNC Frontcourt

Freshmen Aiding UNC Frontcourt

Think back to Tyler Hansbrough last year – North Carolina's only true center – and how he carried the inside load the entire season. There were no injuries or letdowns. Now, imagine him with help – and lots of it.

Hansbrough led the '05-'06 Tar Heels in scoring (18.9 ppg.), field goal percentage (57.0) rebounding (7.8 rpg.) and steals (38), earning conference Rookie of the Year honors. He set the Smith Center scoring record with 40 against Georgia Tech, which also doubles as the ACC all-time freshman scoring record.

But now UNC has added a wealth of size in Alex Stepheson (6-9, 225, Los Angeles, Calif.), Deon Thompson (6-8, 245, Torrance, Calif.) and Brandan Wright (6-9, 205, Nashville, Tenn.) – all heralded freshmen with diverse skill sets.

Hansbrough said of the early low post battles, "They've all challenged and have been competitive."

Each freshman brings a different dynamic to what, along with Hansbrough, will make up one of the deepest frontcourts in the country.

Roy Williams said, "I recruited them because they were all great players. But they all have different characteristics that will be more important at different times."

After a little over a week into practice, the team already has set a season goal of breaking the school scoring record of 91.3 points per game ('86-'87). Fans' astronomical expectations this season can be traced to qualified three-deep depth at nearly every position, including the fours and fives.

You have to go back to '93-'94 to find a squad with so many serviceable big men (Eric Montross, Kevin Salvadori, Rasheed Wallace, etc.), and early indications point to even higher potential for this group. However, as it was for Dean Smith following the 1993 NCAA championship season, it will be a challenge for Williams to play all of the big men substantial minutes.

"Right now, they're fighting for survival," Williams said. "They just want to make sure they see the sun come up the next morning. They're just praying they make it.

"But I'm pleased with them; I think they're handling it well," he said. "They understand they can get some time, and how they perform this month will determine that. In practice and through the exhibition games – that will determine it. They know they've got a great chance, and the competition's fun."

The slender, long-armed Wright can leap, has great hands, can put the ball on the floor and passes well.

"Brandan has a way of sliding past people," Williams said. "He may not be as effective as a back to the basket scorer, but defensively, blocking shots and rebounding and running, I think he's got a chance to be something special."

Thompson has a much different body type than Wright, but has already impressed Williams with his capacity to learn quickly and with his ability to score inside.

"Deon's a little raw, but he does have a knack for getting the ball up on the board in putting it in the basket," Williams said. "Before it's over with, he may be the best scorer of the three."

Stepheson's strength and physicality leads to shot blocks, rebounds and easy baskets.

"When Alex gets his hands on it, he's gotten it," Williams said.

First the freshmen have to earn their playing time. Hansbrough, on the other hand, has earned his, and therefore getting the ball inside to the consensus pre-season All-American remains the team's focal point.

Imagine an even more aggressive Hansbrough this year.

"Tyler's never thought about taking a step backward," Williams said. "These three guys have to hit him once, twice, three and four times. There are no easy ones in our practices now. When you go in there, you better be ready to have your shield on, because somebody is going to knock you on your butt.

"But they better make sure that they get the ball, because Tyler is going to keep coming after it," he said.

The additional depth is not only providing much better competition in practice for Hansbrough, but it will also limit double- and triple-teams in games, should enable him to not have to cover the perimeter as often and will allow Carolina to gamble more with its defensive pressure. And, Williams says, he'll be able to give Hansbrough the green light to go after more blocks this year, rather than have to restrain that aspect of his game in order to preserve fouls.

"This year we'll just be able to rotate players in and out," Hansbrough said. "We'll be extremely fast. Defensively, I can see a lot more pressure and trapping."

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