By Dan Wiederer
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
December 7, 2005
Late in the first half of North Carolina's Dec. 3 game at No. 10 Kentucky, Tyler Hansbrough attacked the boards like a stampeding Christmas shopper sprinting into Target the morning after Thanksgiving.
As Bobby Frasor's last-second layup trickled off the rim, Hansbrough burst through a crowd, rose above Kentucky guard Ravi Moss and threw down a two-handed slam. So excited by the flush, which gave Carolina a 44-32 halftime lead in its eventual 83-79 upset, Hansbrough let out a scream and bounded toward the sideline, inadvertently crashing into Kentucky coach Tubby Smith and two Wildcat players along the way.
After just one month of the 2005-06 Tar Heels, who battled into December with four true freshmen among their top eight players, that's the type of intensity the folks in Chapel Hill already have come to expect and enjoy.
"Tyler's a very focused youngster," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "He battles as hard as any freshman I've ever been around. Ever. And when that ball goes up on the boards, he thinks he has as good a chance as anybody to get it. You usually don't find freshmen with that attitude."
Added senior forward David Noel: "When Tyler turns it on, it's on."
As the Tar Heels attempt to regroup and rebuild this season, after losing the top seven scorers off last year's national championship team, they will rely heavily on Hansbrough. He's the crown jewel of an eager and energetic freshman class that at the very least promises to keep UNC competitive this winter.
With another stellar recruiting class already inked for 2006-07, it might not be long before Carolina is making another run at the Final Four. Yet for now, Williams simply is enjoying the day-to-day growth of his green and enthusiastic rookies, a quintet that also includes Frasor, wing guard Marcus Ginyard, wing forward Danny Green and power forward Mike Copeland.
"Practice every day is fun," Williams said. "I go out there every day and yell, 'It's a wonderful day in the neighborhood.' And that's exactly the way I feel."
No freshman excites Williams more than Hansbrough, whose constant tenacity earned him a fitting nickname -- "Psycho T" -- from UNC strength coach Jonas Sahratian this summer.
"I'm not sure I really know how to take that," Hansbrough said.
Teammates insist it's an affectionate moniker, stamped on a budding inside force who led the Tar Heels in scoring in their first four games and was averaging 15.4 points and 7.8 rebounds after the win at Kentucky. A consensus prep All-American from Poplar Bluff, Mo., Hansbrough has more than lived up to his stellar reputation thus far.
His early numbers, while perhaps difficult to sustain during the upcoming conference portion of the schedule, are significantly better than those (11.3 points, 6.6 rebounds) used by since-departed UNC freshman Marvin Williams last season to claim ACC rookie of the year honors. Because of the Heels' talented, experienced, top-heavy roster, Williams came off the bench in all 36 of his appearances in 2004-05. He left as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
Thanks to Carolina's unprecedented seven-man (three seniors, four underclassmen) exodus to the professional ranks after the NCAA title game, Hansbrough became a starter from the moment he showed up for preseason practice. After the summer retirement of little-used 6-11 center Damion Grant (multiple injury problems), Hansbrough and limited 6-9 senior Byron Sanders were the only true post players left in the program.
Now Hansbrough's reputation is spreading quickly, as he continues showcasing strength in the paint and the ferocious demeanor that's becoming his trademark.
"He'll start breathing real hard, his eyes will get real big, he'll start doing some stupid stuff," Noel said. "It's funny when we're out there on the court and in the huddle with him. Tyler can get tough in a hurry. He's a beast on the backboards, and once he goes into his crazy mode, that's it.
"I don't think that's a smart deal for any (opponent) to want that. He'll get about 12 rebounds in a row, 16 blocks, a couple dunks."
The main concern with Hansbrough coming into the season, especially considering the team's limited options in the post, was whether he could stay away from foul trouble. Yet through UNC's first five games, the 6-9, 235-pounder had committed only 12 fouls.
He obviously heeded the advice of his coaches, who told him repeatedly during preseason camp that he needed to be much more selective about which shots to challenge and which to handle with a simple arms-up approach. On the flip side, Hansbrough has become a master at drawing fouls, shooting 45 free throws in UNC's 4-1 start.
Ginyard and Frasor already have joined Hansbrough in Carolina's starting lineup.
A 6-5 defensive specialist from Virginia, Ginyard just might be the most polished and steady of the UNC rookies right now. The only non-McDonald's All-American of UNC's initial four-man class, Ginyard cracked the starting lineup before the season opener, thanks to Williams' set-in-stone rule that his best defender always will be on the floor at tip-off.
"I've said that before, that Marcus is as far along defensively as any incoming freshman that I can remember," Williams said. "I think he understands the entire defensive picture, and he's aware of more things going on than most kids coming straight out of high school."
At Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Va., Ginyard averaged 20.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and three steals per game as a senior and won a state championship. He also was named Virginia's Mr. Basketball, thanks in no small part to his defensive prowess, something Ginyard said he has always possessed.
"Stopping the other team is better to me than saying, 'Yeah I went out there and I scored 30 points,'" Ginyard said. "If you score 30 points and the guy you're guarding scores 30, where did you go?"
It is that type of selfless attitude that makes Ginyard the cornerstone of what Williams believes could become a better defensive team than last year's group by the end of the season. And the coach cautioned critics to avoid labeling Ginyard as a role player.
"Role player to me sometimes sends a negative vibe," Williams said. "A lot of people would say Jackie Manuel was a role player. I thought he was a hell of a player. Role player to me usually means that the guy doesn't try to shoot. But Marcus is going to be a big-time basketball player. And with what his role is, he may end up being our best player. So I certainly wouldn't classify him as a role player."
Frasor might not match Ginyard's defensive ability, but he is certainly on the same level in terms of savvy. Stuck with the monumental challenge of replacing Raymond Felton -- last season's Bob Cousy Award winner as the nation's best point guard and one of UNC's four first-round NBA picks -- Frasor flourished in the early season by not trying to do too much.
A reliable ball-handler and heady defender, Frasor has been given the keys to Carolina's run-at-all-costs offense. He did a mostly admirable job in helping the Tar Heels average 85 points over their first five games.
With sophomore point guard Quentin Thomas sidelined in late November and early December with a stress fracture in his left middle toe, Frasor's minutes spiked. The 6-3 guard from the south side of Chicago responded with veteran poise. Through five games, he averaged 7.2 points, 3.8 assists and 2.8 turnovers per game.
"We need that from him on a consistent basis, every night," Noel said. "For Bobby to be able to handle the point guard spot, for him to be able to go out and limit his turnovers and set up our offense, that's something big that he's going to have to do."
Green, meanwhile, has to provide energy off the bench. The small forward out of St. Mary's High School in New York averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocks as a senior, a clear indication of his versatility. A strong three-point shooter and a solid ball-handler, Green certainly can create problems for opponents on offense.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Green's game in the early season has been his certitude, an assured demeanor that is seemingly contagious on the Carolina bench. The agile freshman said it has been easier to learn and develop a rhythm early in his first college season, knowing that he has a corps of other freshmen to accompany him through the struggles.
"It helps a lot knowing that there are other guys going through the same thing I'm going through," Green said. "We help push each other through. And it's a lot easier to do with people around you, the same age as you, and understanding the same things that you're going through. Right now we're embracing mistakes, knowing that in the long run those are going to help us."
Copeland, a 6-7, 233-pound power forward, is the least talented of Carolina's freshmen and undoubtedly will see the least amount of playing time this season. The big man from R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., didn't sign to play for the Tar Heels until this summer, after the program's roster had been devastated by the NBA defections of Felton, Williams, Sean May and Rashad McCants.
Copeland was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the opportunity, and he provided a way for the Tar Heels to add another big body to their bench and -- perhaps more importantly -- their practice efforts.
"I'm going to enjoy coaching him," Williams said. "You're talking about a little puppy dog out there who just wants to get better. He's got a marvelous attitude, and he looks right down into your soul when he's talking to you."
There is no doubt that Williams was impressed with his team's work ethic, resolve, attitude, intelligence, energy and passion in the first month of the season. If the youngsters continue to develop at the rate they have so far, an NCAA Tournament berth is within reach for the Tar Heels.
"I do feel more confident about the toughness of our kids," Williams said. "I think we've got a bright bunch of kids who really do care. I've always felt that I was fairly competitive and tried to make sure that our kids understand that regardless what happens, we're still going to be playing as hard as we can possibly play.
"I think these kids either had that already or have picked it up very quickly. And so far I've enjoyed watching them play."
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