Postcard from North Carolina
With speed, depth, talent, Tar Heels look like No. 1
Posted: Tuesday October 16, 2007 11:55AM; Updated: Thursday October 18, 2007 2:44PM
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Sutton's Drug Store on Franklin Street is an 84-year-old UNC institution: a real pharmacy with a time-warp of a lunch counter in the back. Greasy burgers hiss on the grill, the milkshakes take a while to serve because they're handmade, and the soda comes from an authentic fountain. Autographed jerseys of Tar Heels past hang from the ceiling, and hundreds of pictures of dignified patrons serve as a sort of nostalgic wallpaper print. Current Carolina point guard Tywon Lawson occupies one of the swivel chairs at the counter, sitting over a vanilla shake and engaging in an activity that's just about the antithesis of retro: He's showing off a Lil' Wayne YouTube that he has queued up on his iPhone.
Lawson had recently found out, from a friend, that he appears in a Lil' Wayne and Young Money video that was shot aboard their tour bus in March. Lawson wasn't there, mind you -- he only flashes by for a nanosecond, on the flatscreen above Wayne's left shoulder when ESPN News plays a highlight from UNC's overtime loss to Georgetown in the Elite Eight. Still, he says he's "pretty psyched" about it; making it on ESPN is old hat by now, but making it on Lil' Wayne TV is huge. Even if it is such a grainy, microscopic cameo that you wouldn't see it if you weren't, well, looking pretty hard.
In Chapel Hill, the 5-foot-11 Lawson occupies a far more central role, that of sophomore pilot for a national-title contender and supporting actor to junior forward Tyler Hansbrough's Wooden Award campaign. The race to cut down the nets in San Antonio boasts a field of speedy point guards -- what with UCLA's Darren Collison, the son of two Guyanese track stars, Memphis' lightning-quick freshman Derrick Rose and Kansas' steal-happy duo of Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers -- but Lawson might be the fastest of them all off the dribble. He surely operates the fleetest attack of any elite team: last season North Carolina ranked ninth nationally in possessions per game, at 73.1, and as Lawson puts it, "Coach [Roy] Williams will never say we're going too fast." Williams thinks the Heels can up the pace in '07-08, mainly because, "I don't think [Lawson] was playing anywhere close to as fast as he can play on a consistent basis."
As much as Lawson flourished late in his freshman season -- he had an absurd 3.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in his final 16 games and made the all-ACC tournament team -- he admits he ran out of gas in the NCAA tourney loss to the Hoyas. Backup point guard Bobby Frasor was suffering through a foot injury and as a result, he says Lawson "had to play so many minutes at the end of the year that he probably took some plays off." Indeed, against Georgetown, Lawson committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers, more than he had in the entire NCAA tournament up to that point.
"I played 39 minutes [in the Elite Eight] and probably seven of them I needed to come out, but coach was like, 'No, keep running!'" says Lawson. "So this year I'm trying to get prepared for it."
With that in mind, Lawson made the mature decision to save his legs over the summer, opting not to try out for the U.S. Pan American Games team -- both he and Hansbrough turned down invites, although teammate Wayne Ellington participated -- and working only one camp, LeBron James' Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio. That doesn't mean Lawson has matured all across the board; his reputation within the team is that of a juvenile prankster who's as likely to be wearing SpongeBob gear as he is Carolina blue, and who spent the early part of his freshman year butting heads with Williams in practice. (They're on good terms now, but the sparring hasn't completely ended: After the practice I saw Monday, Williams made Lawson run nine 22-second wind sprints for showing up late.) Speaking mostly of Lawson, junior guard Danny Green says: "We've got a bunch of grown men who act like little kids sometimes. They do little kid stuff, like trying to get the last hit in a fight, or watching cartoons and being goofballs. But when it comes time to take care of business on the floor, he gets serious."
The business at hand is clearly defined: win a national title. It could very well be Lawson and Hansbrough's final season as Tar Heels, and the pieces are all in place to make a run. UNC's 1-2 duo of McDonald's All-Americans Lawson and Ellington are no longer rookies, Hansbrough is ready to erase the disappointment of having to play the tail end of his sophomore year with a broken nose, and Frasor, Green, Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson are looking like solid complementary parts for a championship run. "We let the Final Four slip away last year," says Lawson. "Anything less this time and it'll be a wasted season."