February 26, 2008
CHAPEL HILL Teams that possess outstanding talent often fail to get the credit they deserve because fans and media figure that those groups are supposed to win, as if the blending of human beings, their individual traits and egos is not worthy of recognition because they possess more physical ability than some others.
When a team such as North Carolina is able to overcome extraordinary circumstances in terms of injuries and illness, that also can be undervalued. That may have been the case with how UNC performed after star point guard Ty Lawson went down with a sprained ankle Feb. 3 against Florida State.
Carolina went 6-1 in its seven games without Lawson, including the one against the Seminoles. (Lawson was hurt in the opening minutes). The initial victories without Lawson were tough battles. UNC was not just adjusting to the loss of Lawson, but also not having Bobby Frasor (earlier, season-ending knee injury) as a backup.
Then forward Deon Thompson suffered a knee injury and later a back injury. Marcus Ginyard, the fourth-string point guard and ace wing defender, had injuries to both feet at one point and could not finish a game. Star center Tyler Hansbrough had to miss a practice for the first time in three years because he injured a toe and could hardly walk. First, a physician drained blood from the toe so Hansbrough could play at Virginia. Later, he removed the toenail.
Danny Green contracted the flu, and the effects showed in his performances against Virginia Tech and N.C. State. The only other point guard, senior Quentin Thomas, also had a virus between Tech and State.
Those injuries were not overblown or used as excuses. Kids missed practices and games. Lawson is one of the best players in the nation, and he's now sat out a huge portion of the conference season.
"I've never been through anything like this," UNC coach Roy Williams said.
The onslaught affected the team psyche for a while, too. When Thompson injured a knee at Virginia, a game in the midst of the worst of the injuries, Williams said he could see the effect on the players.
"It's been difficult on the kids," Williams said. "When it happened to Deon, I turned around and our bench got deathly quiet. When (the trainer) gets up and starts putting ice around Deon's knee, somebody said, Oh, my gosh, not some more.'
"I'm extremely proud of how tough our kids are. Those are a tough bunch of kids."
The Tar Heels gradually have overcome everything to gel with the lineup on hand and get better. After barely surviving against FSU (overtime), Clemson (double-overtime) and Virginia (one-point win), it all clicked.
UNC started playing its best defense of the year. The offense was much different but almost as efficient, after the adjustment to Thomas and Ginyard in place of Lawson.
Hansbrough raised his performance to a level even greater than what everyone had been accustomed to seeing. Also, Wayne Ellington, a top-10 prospect coming out of high school, is realizing his potential.
Ellington is not just hanging around the three-point stripe. He's driving, scoring off put-backs, hitting the mid-range jump shots, rebounding, playing defense and creating assists. And he has become the steady force with his point production that this team needed to complement Hansbrough and be successful.
"Coach always emphasizes, when one man goes down everybody else has to pick it up," said Ellington, who went 8-of-13, hit three of his four three-point shots, scored 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and made two steals in an 84-70 victory at N.C. State. "When guys get hurt, we understand we have to come together as a team and get a big win. There are a lot of guys with small injuries. We're just picking it up."
Heading into the Feb. 24 game in Chapel Hill against Wake Forest, Ellington had gone 22-of-37 from the field (59 percent) and averaged 19.6 points in his last three games. He is a better player and a more consistent scorer.
HANSBROUGH GETTING IT DONE
After Hansbrough put 32 points, 12 rebounds and five steals on the board against N.C. State, Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe said he can understand why the Tar Heels have been able to continue winning through such adversity.
"They have one of the best players in the country in Tyler," Lowe said. "They have one of the best wings in the country in Ellington. They have one of the best sixth men in Green. They play hard. They play smart. They play the right way.
"Obviously, they are coached extremely well. It's not a mystery that they are still going to be good. You saw the two big guns are going to do what they are supposed to do, and that is what good players do. They pick it up and carry the team and don't let it down."
Hansbrough has been spectacular. He averaged 27.8 points and 13.3 rebounds in the first six games after Lawson's injury on Feb. 3. He led the conference in scoring, rebounding, double-figure games in multiple categories, free throw attempts, offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds, and he was second in field goal percentage.
"I think I'm starting to become more of a player," Hansbrough said. "Coach always said guys are going to have to step up when players are out. He didn't say some of the stars also can step up. He was looking at other people, but I think it's an opportunity for everybody.
"It's part of Ty being out, but it's also upon myself. I think it's me just getting confidence with the jumpers and making drives and playing better defense."
Williams can only laugh at the people who suggest someone other than Hansbrough should be the national player of the year.
"I get tickled with these guys who talk about national player of the year," Williams said. "There can't be anybody that gives more to college basketball than that guy. He's not, maybe, in some ways a popular choice because he's a blue-collar guy. He thrashes around in there.
"But the bottom line is the sucker can really play. He's been a load for a lot of people, and you can't be a better kid. He doesn't mind stepping up and trying to make big plays for you."