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Indeed, Hansbrough looks positively Olympian when he catches the ball down low, turns to his left and—instead of keeping his left shoulder closed, in the way of most jump-hook shooters—opens his upper body and left arm toward the basket. Then, instead of releasing quickly from above his head, Hansbrough waits a beat before shooting from a lower point just behind his right ear. He might as well put chalk on his neck. "When I first saw it our freshman year," says teammate Danny Green, "I was like, 'What the hell is that?'"
The result may appear almost as unnatural as Hansbrough's on-court dance after he hit the game-winner against Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament, but there's a method to his quirky delivery. Psycho-T is so strong that he can ward off defenders with his left arm, sometimes bamboozling them by initiating contact, and he's big enough that he can avoid most blocked-shot attempts despite opening up to the basket. And the low release point? "That comes from him wanting to get fouled," says Tar Heels assistant coach Joe Holladay. "He can hold the ball longer, and he'll wait until he gets hit. He gets three points more often than most three-point shooters."
Hansbrough admits that he'll have to change his form once he moves to the NBA, the better to combat taller, more athletic defenders, and he has a tendency to force shots through double- and triple-teams because "he's so competitive, he wants to score over three guys," says Holladay. But at the college level, as Williams says, "he makes it so many times and it's so hard for people to get to it that we haven't done anything to change it." Despite the shot put connotation, it's still a soft shot with plenty of backspin, and Hansbrough relied on it to hit a game-winner at Virginia in February and two key baskets over Louisville's 6'11" David Padgett in the Heels' 83--73 East Regional--final win last Saturday.
Besides, Hansbrough never has been much for style points, anyway. "If it's working, I'll stay with it regardless of how it looks," he says. "If I'm going to make a free throw by shooting it from between my legs each time, then I'd do that."
IF SATURDAY'S showdown between North Carolina and Kansas had a name, it would probably be the Roy Williams Existential Angst Invitational. Ol' Roy says he still has emotional scars from his famously tortured decision in 2003 to leave Kansas, the school he took to four Final Fours, for his alma mater, which he guided to his first NCAA title, in '05. But if everyone gets too wrapped up in a reverie over Williams's first game against Kansas since the Decision, the Jayhawks' Chalmers can snap them out of it in a flash with his uncanny knack for stepping into passing lanes for steals.
Chalmers led the Big 12 in swipes this season, averaging 2.43 per game, a year after setting the Kansas single-season record with 97. "Mario's off-the-ball instincts are as good as anybody's I've ever been around," says Self, who notes that the 6'1" Chalmers is aided by large hands and an unusually long wingspan. But to hear Super Mario himself describe it, his signature skill is almost supernatural. "I try to read people's eyes," he says, "to see what they're looking at and read their minds." Then he springs into action, darting between a passer and his intended recipient, most often after slipping through a screen and anticipating a slow bounce pass or crosscourt pass.
Chalmers's father, Ronnie, is the Jayhawks' director of basketball operations, but both he and his son credit Mario's mother for his ball hawking binges. She knows the game, having played at Winston-Salem (N.C.) State and Methodist College in Fayetteville, N.C. "When I played in high school and in the Air Force, I was always a scorer, but [Almarie] was more of a defensive stopper," says Ronnie. "I say to my wife, 'You take credit for the defense, I'll take credit for the offense.' You always trust a woman's intuition. A lot of times my wife is thinking much further ahead."
But Chalmers's skill carries plenty of risks. The opposing point guards he'll face this week—Carolina's Ty Lawson, and either UCLA's Darren Collison or Memphis's Rose if Kansas advances—can punish him in the blink of an eye if he overreaches. "A lot of times if you make the steal, [it's a] momentum-changing play," says Self. "But it can get your big guys a foul, because a guard will gamble and miss, and then the other player drives the ball and the big guys have to come over and help." Not to worry, says Chalmers: He and fellow guard Russell Robinson "have a connection," so that one knows when to cover for the other if he oversteps his area of responsibility.
Yet for all the unique styles that will be on parade at this year's Final Four, it may help to recall that the heroes of NCAA tournaments past have often been called on to reveal new and unexpected talents in the crucible of the sport's biggest stage. In the tournament's first two weeks we have already seen potential for such enhancements. Hardly a skywalker, Love turned into a shot-blocking monster during UCLA's closest call, a second-round squeaker over Texas A&M, swatting seven in the second half. When Kansas was struggling to score against Davidson in Sunday's Midwest Regional final, Chalmers hit three first-half three-pointers. Likewise, Douglas-Roberts thumbed his nose at skeptics of Memphis's abysmal 60.7% free throw shooting by nailing 14 of 17 from the line on Sunday, part of a 30-for-36 team effort.
And Hansbrough? All he did was step out to drain four shots from between 16 and 18 feet against Louisville, a doomsday scenario for any Carolina foe. It was enough to make you wonder: Why does Psycho-T so rarely shoot a Psycho Three? "I don't know, man," says Hansbrough, who's 0 for 6 from long distance this season after going 3 for 8 during his first two years. "Threes just haven't fallen for me this year. Hopefully I'll knock one in sometime."