Nobody plays harder or has done more to make his team a winner than Tyler Hansbrough, No. 1 North Carolina's maniacally focused junior forward -- which is why he's SI's pick for national player of the year
Posted: Tuesday March 4, 2008 8:52AM; Updated: Wednesday March 5, 2008 1:18PM
On the office desk of his Chapel Hill home, next to the portraits of his wife and children, North Carolina coach Roy Williams keeps a framed 8-by-10 picture of a young man drenched in his own blood. No, Ol' Roy doesn't harbor a soft spot for slasher films. But he does for Tar Heels junior forward Tyler Hansbrough, and to Williams the photograph -- taken a half hour after Duke's Gerald Henderson broke Hansbrough's nose with a flagrant foul last season -- symbolizes the epic toughness of college basketball's fiercest gladiator. "He has two cotton swabs up his nose and blood all over his arms and jersey, and he says, 'How do I look, Coach?' " says Williams, who can't help but giggle at the memory. "What a goofball."
Mention the photograph to Hansbrough, and he'll flash the maniacal grin of his hoops alter ego, Psycho-T. "I was like, 'Get a picture of this so people will believe how bloody it really was,' " he says during a rare moment of repose in the house he shares with teammates Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard and team manager Preston Puckett. "It was gushing. It was crazy."
No player in memory has absorbed, initiated and (let's be honest) enjoyed more bumper-car moments in the lane than the 6' 9", 250-pound Hansbrough, SI's choice for national player of the year. Yet even though Hansbrough has banged his way to more free throw attempts (310) than any other player in the nation, that hardly means he's lacking in finesse. "He finishes with a soft touch, but he can do that after being beaten to death by three people in a matter of two seconds," says Williams. "It's like sumo wrestling followed by George Gervin's finger roll."
Hansbrough's chief player of the year rival, Kansas State freshman forward Michael Beasley, comes armed with his own Akebono-sized credentials. Not only were Beasley's averages (26.7 points and 12.6 rebounds) slightly better than Hansbrough's (23.4 and 10.4) at week's end, but they also exceeded those of Texas's Kevin Durant (25.8 and 11.1) when Durant became the first freshman to be named national player of the year, last season. But Beasley's competition for the award is stiffer than Durant's was. Hansbrough's individual numbers are certainly good enough; he and Beasley were two of only six players averaging at least 20 points and 10 boards. What's more, Psycho-T has been a tougher defender, and he clearly outpaces B-Easy in the most important deal breaker: North Carolina was 27-2 and ranked No. 1 on Monday (not least because Hansbrough averaged 29.0 points during the six games that point guard Ty Lawson recently missed because of injury), while unranked Kansas State was 18-10.
Sure, Beasley is likely to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft -- at least 15 spots ahead of Hansbrough, should both declare for the pros this year -- but the last time we checked, POY was a college award. "Beasley is a better player," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few, "but with the year Carolina has had and the fact that [Hansbrough] plays every second like it's his last, I'd vote for him. When we were getting ready to play Carolina [last season], we'd show clips of him to our guys and say, 'See, this is what we mean when we talk about playing hard.' He's putting out more effort for longer stretches than most college players can even begin to understand. And he's certainly great for college basketball."
Hansbrough's credentials are impressive enough, but it's hard not to give him bonus points for squeezing out every bit of his potential, for never coasting, for giving three All-America seasons to the college game during an era in which nobody expects more than one. "Tyler is not even the most gifted player on my team, much less the most gifted player in college basketball," says Williams. "But no one has a bigger heart. No one has more desire than Tyler Hansbrough."
Where does Hansbrough's competitive drive come from? Look at his family. His father, Gene, can still recall the details of the afternoon doubleheader nine years ago when his two youngest sons went head-to-head despite not playing in the same game. "We had a sixth-grade game, and Tyler scored 46 points," says Gene, an orthopedic surgeon in Poplar Bluff, Mo. "Then we had a fifth-grade game after that, and Ben scored 46 points. And afterward Ben said, 'Tyler doesn't have anything on me now, does he?' "
Competition is everywhere in the Hansbrough chromosomes. Gene was a high jumper at Missouri. Tyler's mother, Tami Wheat, a medical sales rep, is a former Miss Missouri. Ben is now a sophomore guard at 20-8 Mississippi State who could make his own impact on the upcoming NCAAs.