One big man was last year’s national player of the year. The other appears poised to take his place.
Now, Tyler Hansbrough and Blake Griffin will go head-to-head with a lot more at stake than any individual honor.
Hansbrough has led top-seeded North Carolina to within a victory of a second straight Final Four. But to get there the Tar Heels will have to go through Griffin and Oklahoma on Sunday in a clash of low post stars.
“You have everything that’s right about college basketball with these two kids,” Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. “Tyler staying in school for four years and breaking every record at North Carolina and in the ACC. And then Blake, you know, turning down the money last year and coming back. Both of them have been great ambassadors for college basketball.”
Hansbrough was The Associated Press player of the year in 2008, and when he and three key teammates decided to stay in college another year, the Tar Heels became immediate favorites to win this season’s national title. Along the way, some other contenders joined them—including Griffin and his Sooners, seeded No. 2 in the South Regional.
Griffin, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, is averaging 22.7 points a game and 14.4 rebounds after passing on last year’s NBA draft. In Friday night’s win over Syracuse, he was Boomer Sooner personified, plowing over Jonny Flynn en route to one layup, then rising so high for a dunk he hit his head on the bottom of the backboard.
“He’s really explosive. You know, that’s pretty obvious,” Hansbrough said. “You watch some of his games and his highlights—he’s pretty explosive, and he’s a good offensive rebounder.”
The 6-foot-9 Hansbrough can score inside as well, and he’s improved his outside shooting. The result: He’s now the Atlantic Coast Conference’s career leader in scoring.
Hansbrough said he doesn’t watch much college basketball when his team isn’t playing, so he hasn’t seen Griffin play much. Griffin, on the other hand, has seen plenty of Hansbrough, who has been hard to miss while playing four years at one of college basketball’s most prominent programs.
“I’ve seen him play a lot since his freshman year,” Griffin said. “I’ve seen him play a lot of games every season.”
Both players sought to downplay their personal matchup, and with good reason. Their supporting casts are impressive. Tony Crocker scored 28 points against Syracuse, and guard Willie Warren can score in streaks.
As for the Tar Heels, Hansbrough might not even be their best player. Ty Lawson scored 19 points with nine assists in Friday night’s win over Gonzaga, and backcourt mate Wayne Ellington has scored 67 in the team’s three NCAA tournament wins.
Lawson has been bothered by a toe injury this month, but it didn’t seem to slow him against Gonzaga.
“My toe is feeling good,” Lawson said Saturday. “It didn’t really swell up last night. It’s not much pain in it. It’s getting better.”
Lawson, Ellington and Danny Green all decided to stay at North Carolina along with Hansbrough, setting aside the NBA for the time being. The Tar Heels (31-4) are now on the verge of a record 18th Final Four. UCLA has been to 18, but the Bruins’ 1980 appearance was later vacated by the NCAA because of rules violations.
“Last year in late May, early June, whenever it was that we were anointed,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I said at that time no team in college basketball is going to go undefeated anymore. It’s just not going to happen. … I couldn’t be any happier—could not be one degree happier with the way our kids have tried to do things for our team and not be concerned about themselves.”
Oklahoma (30-5) is trying for its first Final Four appearance since 2002. Capel made it clear the Sooners would not try to run with the speedy Tar Heels for 40 minutes.
“They’re going to score,” Capel said. “The thing we have to do is, as best we can, is try to control tempo. We can’t play at their pace. No one can.”
There’s plenty of historic significance to this matchup. Capel grew up as a North Carolina fan but ended up playing for Duke. His buzzer-beating shot from about 35 feet tied a 1995 matchup between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, but Duke lost in double overtime.
North Carolina and Oklahoma are playing for the first time since 1990, when the Tar Heels upset top-seeded Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA tournament on a last-second bank shot by Rick Fox.
That was an early exit for an Oklahoma team that wanted to chase a national title. This year’s Tar Heels and Sooners have similar goals, but one slip and it will all be over. North Carolina is in the regional finals for the third straight year. The Tar Heels lost in 2007 and advanced to the Final Four last season.
“When you lose at this stage, what somebody does is they reach in and they jerk your heart out and they shake it right in front of your face. It can’t get any worse,” Williams said. “When your team is cutting down that net and going to the Final Four, it can’t get any better.”