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THREE WEEKS into the 2008--09 season, there is little reason to quibble with the preseason consensus choice of North Carolina as the No. 1 team. But the widely held view that Tar Heels senior forward Tyler Hansbrough will repeat as player of the year? That prediction is on shakier ground.
To be sure, Hansbrough was averaging 21 points and 5.3 rebounds through Sunday after sitting out four of North Carolina's first seven games with a stress reaction in his right shin. At the same time, players on three other top teams have made it clear that even the battle for best big man in the country will be a horse race. Eleventh-ranked Oklahoma's 6'10", 250-pound sophomore forward Blake Griffin was averaging 25.7 points and 19.2 rebounds while leading the Sooners to a 6--0 start and the preseason NIT championship. Pittsburgh's affable 6'7", 265-pound enforcer DeJuan Blair, last year's Big East co--rookie of the year, was averaging 15.3 points and 12.3 rebounds for the fourth-ranked Panthers (7--0). And No. 8 Notre Dame's 6'8", 255-pound junior forward Luke Harangody, last year's Big East player of the year, was averaging 22.6 points and 11.2 rebounds through five games, numbers dragged down by the subpar 13 points and seven rebounds he put up in a 102--87 loss to North Carolina in the Maui Invitational championship game while battling both Hansbrough and pneumonia.
All three players have at least one thing in common with Hansbrough besides long arms, soft hands and quick feet. "They are relentless," says Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. Adds Pitt assistant Tom Herrion, "Put them in a steel cage, throw a lid on the rim, and you'd get a pay-per-view event watching them go at it."
Nobody has had a hotter start than Griffin, who already has two 30-plus-scoring games and three 20-plus-rebounding games. In an 87--82 overtime win against then No. 9 Purdue in the NIT title game last Friday, Griffin scored 18 points and grabbed 21 rebounds despite constant double teams from the Boilermakers. And in a sign that his game is evolving beyond the brute power that marked it last year, none of those points came on a dunk. "[Griffin] has expanded his game," says Capel. "He's hitting 15- and 17-foot shots, turnaround jumpers and a jump hook pretty consistently."
Harangody, who already packs a full quiver of offensive weapons, has continued to expand the range on his unorthodox stroke, reshape his lineman's body, work on his defense and improve as a passer. Through five games he had seven assists against seven turnovers. "That [ratio is] pretty good when you consider how much the ball is in his hands," says Notre Dame assistant Sean Kearney.
Like Griffin and Harangody, Blair can handle the ball well enough to push the break, but he is most at home in the paint, where his 7'2" wingspan and ample, space-clearing backside help give him an advantage on the boards despite his relatively short stature. "He has an ability to get balls outside his area, which really separates him as a rebounder," says Herrion. Blair is still primarily a back-to-the-basket offensive threat, and he needs to work on his touch, particularly from the free throw line, where he shoots a dismal 53.3%. (Foul-shooting is also Griffin's Achilles' heel.)
Hey, nobody's perfect. But whoever emerges from this season's player of the year field may have to come pretty close.
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