Heels, Sooners ready for battle of big men

Published 11:48 am Sunday, March 29, 2009

By By NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.