On Saturday, Tyler Hansbrough made his third start of the season in place of the injured Amir Johnson. The Raptors lost to the Boston Celtics in overtime, but Hansbrough contributed 18 points, seven rebounds, two steals and a block, and shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the field and 8-for-8 from the free-throw line before fouling out—taking full advantage of a rare opportunity to show what he can do in extended minutes.
In his sixth NBA season, Hansbrough is firmly entrenched as a role player, a big man who comes off the bench to provide energy and rebounding on both ends of the floor, and rattle opposing players with his physicality. There was a time, however, when Hansbrough was much more than that, when he was the focal point at the University of North Carolina, where he was a four-time All-American and the 2007-08 National Player of the Year.
On Monday, Wisconsin and Duke will play in the Finals of the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers are led by National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, a senior who is looking to close out his college career with a national championship—a feat Hansbrough accomplished in his senior season with the Tar Heels in 2009.
Hansbrough’s incredible collegiate run should have been capped off a year earlier. In his junior season, North Carolina—a team led by Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington—started the year ranked No. 1 in both the coaches’ and AP rankings. The Tar Heels met those expectations, going 36-2 and landing the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament. In the Elite Eight, Hansbrough scored 28 points and pulled down 13 rebounds as North Carolina defeated Louisville to advance to the Final Four, where they eventually lost to the Kansas Jayhawks.
Hansbrough wasn’t sure whether to declare for the NBA draft after the loss. Experts, like ESPN’s Chad Ford, projected him as a potential first-round pick, although not a lottery selection. Still, coming off a National Player of the Year award and an impressive tournament run, the timing seemed right for Hansbrough to move on. “After my freshman year, I was pretty sure I would be [at North Carolina] for all four seasons,” Hansbrough recalls. “But after the loss to Kansas, I needed to think about it.”
In late April of 2008, Hansbrough announced that he would be returning for his senior season, becoming the first National Player of the Year to return for another season since Shaquille O’Neal in 1991. Having accomplished everything except winning a national championship, Hansbrough’s final year at North Carolina would be defined by the one thing missing on his collegiate resume. Green, Ellington and Lawson all declared for the 2008 NBA draft, but did not hire agents, and eventually returned to North Carolina as well for one last run.
The Tar Heels entered the season as favorites once again, but lost their first two in-conference games. Hansbrough missed four of the team’s first seven contests with a stress reaction condition in his right shin, the first time in his career he had been sidelined. Even with the early season injury and the damage it could do to his draft stock, Hansbrough never looked back. “Once I made my decision, it was final,” He says. “I was happy with it.”
The Tar Heels finished the 2008-09 season with a 28-4 record, and once again earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament. In the first round, UNC moved past 16th seed Radford in convincing fashion, 101-58. In the second round, LSU’s Marcus Thornton scored 25 points against the Tar Heels, and the game was tied with eight minutes left before a late run put UNC ahead for good. From then on, North Carolina won every single game in the tournament by double digits. After losing in the Elite Eight in his sophomore season and the Final Four in his junior year, Hansbrough finally made a national championship game, facing off against Michigan State.
“It took a lot of work and concentration to get to where we were,” Hansbrough says. “I was ready to get it over with. I was just sitting around waiting forever for the game to finally start.”
Hansbrough finished his final collegiate appearance with 18 points and 13 rebounds. The Tar Heels led by 21 points at halftime on their way to a 89-72 victory. “Sounds like I made a pretty good decision,” Hansbrough said after the victory. He remembers that evening very vividly. “We just celebrated hard,” He says. His brother Ben and other friends and family were at the Final Four in Detroit. “We all partied together. It was awesome.”
The four-year experience shaped Hansbrough and taught him an important lesson that he’s carried to the pros. “I realize that everywhere I go, I have to have thick skin,” Hansbrough says. “I’ve faced a lot of things in my career. It is what it is.”
There are two weeks left until the start of the NBA playoffs. Hansbrough and the Raptors are preparing for what they hope will be an extended run. But tonight, Hansbrough will probably be watching the national championship game and reliving some of his own past glories.
“Seeing these kids go out and play, it brings back all these memories,” Hansbrough says. “It feels like yesterday.”
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