Beyond the Prize Fight

Inside Carolina
Posted Mar 28, 2009


MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The made-for-television production has finally arrived – Tyler Hansbrough vs. Blake Griffin. But while that matchup has drawn a ridiculous amount of media attention, it’s quite possible that these heavyweights cancel each other out. If that happens, then the advantage quickly turns in North Carolina’s favor.

It took Hansbrough all of two questions about the highly-anticipated meeting to show signs of irritation at the rampant conversation.

“It's just North Carolina playing Oklahoma,” the four-time All-American told reporters during Saturday’s media gathering. “I'm not going to try to make it bigger than what it is by trying to be selfish and go out there and try to play for myself. So whatever our team needs to do, that's what I'll do.”

Griffin enters Sunday’s contest as a virtual lock for national player of the year honors, averaging 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds in his sophomore campaign. Hansbrough, who earned unanimous national player of the year honors last season, is posting 21.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per outing.

While they may not square off on every possession in Sunday night’s Elite Eight battle, the two standouts will likely crash into each other on a number of occasions, so the frenzied buildup is logical, even to Roy Williams.

“I guess I can understand the hype,” the sixth-year UNC head coach replied when asked about the matchup.

But Williams built this program upon one simple concept – one player does not determine the success of the team. Due to injuries and a suspension, the Tar Heel roster has missed a combined 85 outings this season, ranging from Hansbrough’s four games (shin stress reaction) to Marcus Ginyard’s 32 games (foot).

And through it all, North Carolina has secured a 31-4 record and a No. 1 seed despite its rash of season-long difficulties. When Miami held Hansbrough to eight points on Feb. 15, ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson stepped up and led UNC to victory with 21 points. Wayne Ellington (23 straight games in double figures) has risen to the occasion when called upon this season, as well as the streaky Danny Green (18 or more points in nine games).

There are five Tar Heels averaging double figures against just two for Oklahoma. More importantly, North Carolina’s four losses are not directly tied to Hansbrough’s performance. His numbers drop 19 percent to 17.8 points per game in defeat, while Griffin’s totals fall 61 percent to 14.0 points in Oklahoma’s five losses. In other words, contain the Sooner big man, and victory becomes a likely scenario.

Lawson provided the bluntly honest response on Saturday, saying, “I feel like we have more guards and more people on our team that can contribute than they do.”

The clash of the titans may seem larger than life outside the FedEx Forum, but inside these walls, it’s just another day at the office for the Tar Heels.

“Inside this locker room, it’s not a big deal,” senior guard Bobby Frasor said. “Of course the media and CBS, they’re going to hype it up as a Hansbrough-Griffin boxing match. But we can win without him. We have a lot of different weapons, and that’s what makes us dangerous. But he is a huge part to our team.”

North Carolina proved against LSU last Saturday that as long as three of its “Big Four” – Hansbrough, Lawson, Ellington and Green – are playing well, they can compete with anyone. And as the Tar Heels displayed in dismantling Gonzaga on Friday, when all four are clicking, it might be in your best interests to move out of the way.

“I think we're playing good at the right time,” Lawson said. “Everything is starting to click. Everybody's playing to their strengths, and everybody's playing real well.”

Ironically, the junior point has played a significant role in rebuilding a North Carolina bench that had lost key members throughout the season. If the infamous big right toe provided the Tar Heels with anything, it was the ability to give the bench more playing time to carve out their niches.

“I think Ty’s injury kind of helped everybody raise their game and get more confident and comfortable out there,” Frasor said. “I think it’s really showing with me, and Larry [Drew’s] even playing better. If we’re getting points off our bench and getting good solid minutes and not losing a beat when we come in the game, then it makes us that much tougher to beat.”

The UNC bench collection of Frasor, Drew, Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller has combined for 55 points against just four turnovers in 177 minutes of action in three NCAA Tournament victories.

There’s no doubting that Oklahoma has just as good of a chance to punch its ticket to Detroit as North Carolina does on Sunday. But when it comes down to the Hansbrough vs. Griffin spectacle, the Tar Heels can withstand a losing effort by its heavyweight. The Sooners, on the other hand, cannot.


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