Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/10/2007 05:21:00 PM
Why the Mask Matters
Tyler Hansbrough, who averaged 18.4 points a game during the regular season, is down to 7.5 ppg wearing a mask.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
TAMPA, Fla. -- With every turbo-boosted fastbreak and Brandan Wright dunk here in central Florida, North Carolina is bringing itself closer and closer to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Bracket projections all over the Internet have the Tar Heels unanimously on the No. 2 line -- even more unanimously than Tyler Hansbrough was an All-ACC pick -- but if the regular-season ACC champs win the conference tournament, that designation surely will have to change. Can the selection committee really keep the team that swept the No. 1 league in the RPI from being a No. 1 seed, even if it's at the expense of a streaking Kansas squad or one of the Big Ten's twin titans, Ohio State and Wisconsin?
Boston College (20-11, 10-6) finished just one game behind UNC (27-6, 11-5) in the ACC standings but the gap between the two teams in Saturday's conference tournament semifinal appeared much, much larger. In a 71-56 victory, the Tar Heels won the rebounding battle 41-25, with Hansbrough grabbing 13. Tywon Lawson held Eagles point guard Tyrese Rice, who had scored 32 points against Miami on Friday, to just five on 1-of-9 shooting. And Wright, our topic from yesterday, racked up 20 points on eight dunks, most of them served up on a silver platter by Lawson.
There was only one thing missing from the Tar Heels' arsenal. And it was the same thing that was glaringly missing from yesterday's win over Florida State.
Tyler Hansbrough's offense.
The mask -- the after-effect of being bludgeoned by Duke's Gerald Henderson on March 4 -- is killing Hansbrough's ability to score. Over the course of the ACC tournament, Hansbrough has probably grabbed the nasal portion of the mask, wincing, 100 times. He has readjusted the elastic straps on the mask, while grimacing, at least 25 times. But the number of memorable offensive moves he's made is zero.
On Friday against Florida State, his first game behind plastic, Hansbrough had just six points on 3-of-7 shooting. On Saturday he had nine on 4-of-10 shooting. He came into the ACC tournament averaging 19.2 on 51.5 percent shooting. North Carolina, far more than most teams, has other offensive options. It has Wright, and Wayne Ellington, and Lawson and Reyshawn Terry, and a bench that goes 12 deep. But how long can the Tar Heels survive in the dance without getting their full load of points from Psycho T?
UNC coach Roy Williams was thrilled that Hansbrough asserted himself on the glass against BC, but had serious concerns over what happened on the other end. "You can look at [Hansbrough's] stats over the course of the year and until these last two games he always shoots a great percentage," Williams said. "That mask is bothering him a great deal, and it still bothers me because he's the victim and no one is worried about him."
Williams was addressing the lack of sympathy -- from Duke and much of the rest of the nation -- for his star, but there are those who are worrying about Hansbrough for other reasons. His point guard is one of them. "There were a couple of shots today that he normally makes -- I mean, 100 percent -- and he's not making them right now," Lawson said of Hansbrough. "It's because of the mask. He's gotta get adjusted to it; I don't know how, but he has to. It'll probably be 2-3 games before he's all right."
Hansbrough, according to Williams, is most limited in the department of peripheral vision. "A post player gets the ball with his back to the basket, and as he turns to shoot, he's gotta find the rim quickly," Williams said. "And now you've got these obstacles on your face that make it more difficult to do that. Every day, I'm hoping it will get better."
One gets the feeling, talking to Hansbrough in the locker room after Saturday's win -- and this is saying a lot, given how fierce of a competitor he is -- that getting rid of the mask is higher on his agenda that even winning the ACC tournament. Because if he doesn't ditch the plastic, he can't truly play like Psycho T. And without a fully functioning Hansbrough, it's doubtful UNC will be able to win a national title.
"I don't think I'll ever get used to this [mask], man," Hansbrough said. "I'm just trying to get my nose to heal ... so I don't have to wear it the whole time in the NCAA tournament."
As of right now, the doctors are taking a cautious approach: wear it for the whole ACC tournament, and then revisit the issue before the NCAAs. If the docs say it stays on, though, Hansbrough doubts he would overrule them.
"I could, but I wouldn't want to," he said. "I wouldn't want my nose to end up on the side of my face."
As second options go, that one is as unappealing as it gets.
The mask's post-game resting place on Friday, following UNC's win over Florida State.
TAMPA, Fla. -- This Tyler Hansbrough mask story isn't going to die just yet. He scored just six points in 27 minutes with it on; the ACC tournament media horde swarmed him afterward to ask about it; he's still going to be wearing it Saturday against Boston College; and he still hates it. "I don't like anything on my body," said Hansbrough. "I'm not even a guy that gets taped."
The Tourney Blog, in its effort to bring you the best mask coverage possible, did some canvassing of the UNC locker room after Friday's 73-58 win over Florida State. (If the New York Times' blog is covering bow ties at the Big East tournament, surely I can cover plastic facial guards in Tampa.) While Hansbrough sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by a large pack of middle-aged men holding cameras and notebooks, his mask lay neglected in his locker. It was gracious enough to pose for one photograph, which appears at right.
I asked senior guard Wes Miller, who was sitting a few lockers down from the mask, if any of the Heels had assigned Hansbrough new nicknames after the Gerald Henderson incident. Miller made the astute point that he didn't think a new nickname was necessary "because the mask just kind of fits into his personality anyways." Hansbrough was tugging at the mask all afternoon and had it ripped off within seconds of fouling out against the 'Noles, but really -- is there a player in the country who seem more fit for a mask than the reckless, rough-and-tumble Tar Heels star?
"Besides," added Miller, "Tyler's got so many nicknames anyway, he doesn't need anymore."
Turning to sophomore teammate Danny Green, Miller said, "How many nicknames does Tyler have? I can't even think of them all. We call him Psycho T, and T-Bone, and I just call him 'T' all the time."
"We call him Big Man, too," Green said.
"Oh, and Spaz-bro," Miller said.
Spaz-bro. That's the Blog's new favorite.
Meanwhile, it was discovered that junior point guard Quentin Thomas -- the author of the alley-oop mentioned in the Brandan Wright post -- did see fit to add to the Psycho/T-Bone/Big Man/Spaz-Bro arsenal with an ode to Gunnar Hansen. "At practice this week, I thought he looked like the guy from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so I called him Leatherface," Thomas said. "I'm not sure if Tyler heard me, but if he did, well, Psycho T is Psycho T."
Sophomore guard Bobby Frasor, Hansbrough's best friend on the team, said the mask was at least good for something: comic relief in their first workout following the Duke game. "The first time he had it on in practice, it was pretty funny," Frasor said. "He was trying to get used to it and he didn't like the strap in the back, so he put it on underneath like a chin-strap. We're trying to run our offense, and here's Tyler with a chin-strap mask on. We were all just laughing at him."
Considering how UNC's last meeting with Boston College went -- a 77-72 Tar Heels win at Conte Forum that was never in doubt -- I welcome any and all appearances of the chin-strap mask. Both for amusement and future blog material.
Hansbrough didn't don the plastic apparatus until minutes before game time on Friday, when UNC ran out for its final warmups. And he did not look comfortable wearing it. The mask may actually be obstructing his breathing, as he was removed from the Florida State game at the 16:41 mark for no other apparent reason.