The Poplar Bluff, Mo. product currently holds down the third spot in NCAA history in career free throws made with 889, and will soon become the all-time leader after passing LSU’s Pete Maravich (893) and Wake Forest’s Dickie Hemric (905). But as opposing defenses resort to more physical approaches in defending the senior forward, there is a growing sentiment amongst Tar Heel fans – and even the national media has jumped on board recently – that the officials are not calling the fouls that Hansbrough has been accustomed to receiving over the duration of his career.
The reigning national player of the year averaged 10.3 free throw attempts per game through the first 25 games of the 2007-08 season. That average through North Carolina’s first 25 games this season, in which Hansbrough has played 21 of those contests, has dropped to 8.9 attempts per game. In ACC play, the senior averaged 10.8 free throw attempts in the first 11 conference games in ‘07-‘08, while he is shooting 20 percent less (8.6) in ‘08-‘09.
A closer look reveals that Hansbrough averaged 12 free throw attempts in the first five games of the current ACC season, while shooting just 5.7 free throws per game over the last six. That decrease is directly correlated with his scoring average, which has dropped from 22 points per game in the first five league games to 17.2 over the last six. After a 55-game double-digit scoring streak, Hansbrough has been held to just eight points twice during the last half-dozen outings.
"I have had conversations this year with the supervisor of officials," UNC head coach Roy Williams said during his weekly radio show on Monday night. "It is a hard game to referee, there's no question about it, but I'm really just getting so discouraged because I think Tyler Hansbrough gets beat up more than anybody I've ever seen in college basketball."
The evidence for that last sentence has been seen – and heard – loud and clear. Hansbrough had to leave the Jan. 21 win over Clemson briefly after being hit in the mouth and loosening a front tooth, and in Sunday night’s win over Miami, the senior absorbed what Williams described as three “pretty significant blow[s] to the head.”
One of those wallops left Hansbrough with a headache and a possible concussion, leaving him unavailable to the media for postgame interviews and sidelining him from practice on Monday and Tuesday.
ACC coordinator of officials John Clougherty confirmed on Wednesday afternoon that Hansbrough is “very difficult” to officiate, as are most aggressive post players.
“Tyler Hansbrough is a presence inside, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from contact,” Clougherty said. “My officials do the best they can with it, but it is certainly a very difficult area to officiate. Not only Tyler Hansbrough, but any team that wants to play basketball from inside the paint.”
Injuries aside, opposing fanbases counter the argument that Hansbrough is no longer getting the calls he deserves by pointing to the fact that he still leads the nation in free throw attempts per game at 8.9 per outing.
"Yes, he shoots more free throws than anybody in the ACC, and I think he should shoot more," Williams said. "It's just a season long thing that I think he's shot fewer free throws than he should shoot."
Williams is not the only coach who believes Hansbrough is being officiated differently this season.
"I don't think he's getting the same calls he used to get," an ACC coach told FoxSports.com's Jeff Goodman earlier this month on the condition of anonymity.
“No, I don’t have an opinion on that,” Clougherty said when asked about the opposing coach’s comments. “I don’t know that my referees are refereeing Tyler Hansbrough any different this year than they have in the past.”
UNC forward Deon Thompson tip-toed around the question on Tuesday afternoon.
"It's hard to say," Thompson said. "I think they go both ways. He definitely gets calls on the defensive end – he took a big-time charge at the end of the Miami game down there. I just think that maybe referees are looking at how he plays the game a little bit more, but it's really tough to say."
Further adding to this theory is the fact that the ACC officiating crew has drawn criticism this season for its inconsistency. For example, John Cahill has refereed three North Carolina conference games thus far, and the average total fouls called in those contests are 28. Karl Hess, on the other hand, has been present for four UNC games, and those foul totals average out to 44 per outing.
But the consistency from game-to-game is not what matters – it’s the consistency within the game that counts.
"As a player, you've got to adjust to those types of things early on," UNC forward Danny Green said on Sunday. "You have to see how the refs are calling the game early, and usually, they stay consistent throughout the game with how they're going to call it. It might change up – you never know – but you just have to play according to how they're calling the calls."
There’s no dispute that Hansbrough’s scoring success over his career is due in large part to getting to the charity stripe. And that ability directly impacts North Carolina’s ability to win games. In the Tar Heels’ 36 wins in ’07-’08, free throws accounted for 35.3 percent of Hansbrough’s 22.8 points per game average. In their three losses, free throws represented just 22.6 percent of his 20.7 scoring average.
No. 3 North Carolina’s national title hopes rest on the senior All-American’s shoulders, and having to fight a difficult battle with the officials could factor into the equation when tournament time rolls around in March.