Hansbrough hangs around

DETROIT – A few years ago, Tyler Hansbrough called his mother and told her he’d gotten his nipples pierced.

“It was a joke,” Hansbrough says. “But she didn’t like it.”

Hansbrough’s roommate wasn’t happy, either, when a recent prank left him with a soaked T-shirt. While Bobby Frasor was away from home, Hansbrough snuck into the kitchen and wrapped Scotch tape around the handle of the hose that connects to the kitchen sink.

“I came home and turned on the faucet,” Frasor says, “and I got sprayed.”

Sitting nearby in the North Carolina locker room, Hansbrough grins when reminded of the incident.

“Oh yeah – that’s one of my all-time favorites,” the All-American forward says, and then he busts out laughing.

On the eve of the Final Four, Hansbrough couldn’t be having any more fun. One minute he’s cracking jokes, the next he’s conducting mock interviews with teammates toting hand-held video cameras.

It’s a side we haven’t seen from Hansbrough – at least not this year. And that’s a shame. The most productive player in North Carolina history bypassed the NBA draft and returned to school for all the right reasons, yet instead of praising him, folks have seemed to take pleasure on interrupting his swan song with cruel comments and unfounded criticism. In an era of one-and-dones, he is one of several upperclassmen to stick around and lead their teams to the national semifinals this season.

EXPERIENCE COUNTS
The one-and-done’s are done – at least when it comes to the NCAA tournament. Rather than straight-to-the-NBA players, the buzzword for the 2009 Final Four is “experience.” All of the teams in this year’s field feature lineups littered with juniors and seniors who could make a difference during Saturday’s semifinals and Monday’s title game. Here are the upperclassmen to watch for each team:
CONNECTICUT
Senior forward Jeff Adrien, 6-7, 243: The aggressive, well-chiseled Adrien is one of the most intimidating players in college basketball. He’s started every game for the Huskies the last three seasons and is averaging 13.7 points and 10 rebounds in 2008-09. A lot of Adrien’s points come on put-backs or baskets created by hustle plays, but he also has a nice mid-range game that keeps opponents on their heels.

Others:
• Senior guard A.J. Price, 6-2, 181
• Junior forward Stanley Robinson, 6-9, 210
• Senior guard Craig Austrie, 6-3, 176
• Junior center Hasheem Thabeet, 7-3, 263
MICHIGAN STATE
Senior forward Travis Walton, 6-2, 190: Don’t let his 5.2-point scoring average fool you. Walton is one of the top “glue guys” in all of college basketball and a huge reason the Spartans are in the Final Four. Walton has played in 140 games during his four-year career. Last month he was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Others:
• Senior center Goran Suton, 6-10, 245
• Junior forward Raymar Morgan, 6-8, 225
• Senior forward Marquise Gray, 6-8, 235
NORTH CAROLINA
Senior guard Danny Green, 6-6, 210: The model of consistency, Green couldn’t have performed much better during his first season as a starter. Green averages 13.3 points and shoots 41.5 percent from beyond the arc. Has a knack for blocking shots, which is unique for a guard. Green is averaging 15.5 points during the NCAA tournament.

Others:
• Senior guard Bobby Frasor, 6-3, 210
• Junior guard Ty Lawson, 5-11, 195
• Junior forward Deon Thompson, 6-8, 245
• Junior guard Wayne Ellington, 6-4, 200
VILLANOVA
Senior forward Dante Cunningham, 6-8, 230: The Big East’s Most Improved Player went from averaging 10.4 points as a junior to a team-high 16.2 points this year. He also leads the Wildcats in rebounds with 7.4. A strong performance from Cunningham against North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough will be vital for the Wildcats to advance to the title game.

Others:
• Senior forward Shane Clark, 6-7, 205
• Senior forward Dwayne Anderson, 6-6, 215
• Junior guard Scottie Reynolds, 6-2, 195
• Junior guard Reggie Redding, 6-5, 205
– Jason King

Many of the writers and commentators who used to gush over Hansbrough’s work ethic now criticize him for flopping and whining to the officials. Others question his professional future and throw around words such as “overrated” and “overhyped.” At opposing arenas, he’s booed louder than the Iron Sheik in a wrestling match against Sgt. Slaughter.

Seriously, why has it become so fashionable to hate Tyler Hansbrough?

“It’s like having a filet every day,” Frasor says. “Even though you’re having something great, if you have it every day, it gets mundane. You want to try to find something else.

“He continues to get scrutinized, and I don’t think it’s fair. [Hansbrough] doesn’t like talking about it. He’s not a big fan of the media. He never has been, but this year it’s even more so.”

A three-time All-American, Hansbrough missed four of the Tar Heels’ first seven games with a stress reaction in his right shin and a left ankle bruise. Eventually, though, he returned to lead North Carolina to a 32-4 record and the outright regular-season ACC title.

Hansbrough’s scoring has dipped from 22.6 to 20.9 points per game and his rebounding numbers have fallen from 10.2 to 8.1, but much of that is because of the talented players who surround him. It’s actually amazing that Hansbrough has put up the numbers that he has on a team that has so many capable pieces.

Even though he says he ignores the criticism, Hansbrough can’t help but hear it. As a result, he’s been more standoffish this season during postgame interviews. His teammates say he often seems stressed and burdened.

“Everyone had all these expectations of me,” Hansbrough says. “Sometimes people were really critical of my play. It’s still fun, but there have definitely been some tough times. There have been some bumps in the road.”

Some of them have occurred away from the court. Last summer, a YouTube video surfaced featuring Hansbrough leaping off a roof and into a swimming pool at a frat party. Photos of him flirting with girls at nightclubs have been pasted on Internet message boards. A routine walk to class often means posing for pictures or signing autographs for classmates.

“Sometimes I have fun with it. Other times it gets annoying. You can’t really go out or walk though campus without being noticed. Everyone is always going to be watching. It’s part of playing for North Carolina.”

Through it all, Hansbrough has remained humble. Tucked away in his closet is the Wooden Award trophy he was given last season after being voted as the best player in college basketball.

“Some guys would put it on the coffee table and say, ‘Hey, check out my award!’ ” Frasor said. “Tyler isn’t like that. He’s the most reserved, humble … all of those words. He doesn’t like talking about himself at all.”

Hansbrough knows he probably won’t receive a similar trophy this year. Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin has been named national player of the year by virtually every publication and is expected to be the No. 1 overall selection in this summer’s NBA draft.

Where Hansbrough ends up being taken is anyone’s guess.

“Right now,” he says, “all I care about is climbing that ladder and cutting those nets.”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Apr 3, 2009