It’s been a tough year for the University of North Carolina basketball team. As mid-February approaches, the Tar Heels are near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, and the prospects of improving seem remote.
It’s quite a comedown from a year ago, when Tyler “Psycho-T” Hansbrough led the Tar Heels to their sixth national championship. *
Hansbrough was unlike any player I’ve ever seen in a Carolina uniform. He wasn’t the first immensely talented player to lead UNC to glory. But his focus and passion for winning were unearthly. He was a superstar who played as though he was a scrappy but marginally talented teenager trying to win the last spot on a high school junior varsity team.
He was bloodied, banged and decked by other players, and he bounced up and charged back into the game. He dove for loose balls like a crazed little point guard instead of a 6-9 power forward. Sometimes when he grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back up to score, it seemed like he had the entire opposing team literally hanging onto him.
His manic intensity prompted his teammates to nickname him Psycho-T, and you could see his intensity on his face. To borrow a phrase from “My Name Is Earl,” he had crazy-eyes. And he gave that kind of effort for four years, unheard of in an era when college superstars forego their junior or senior seasons to become instant millionaires in the NBA.
Despite losing Hansbrough and every other key player on last year’s team, UNC was ranked sixth nationally by the Associated Press at the start of the 2009-10 season.
I don’t claim to be a highly skilled basketball analyst, but I’ve watched UNC long enough to know that that ranking was far off the mark. Back on January 2, as the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball schedule was getting underway, I sent the following to Alan Snel, an old friend in Tampa who knows I’m an intense Carolina fan:
“As for the basketball Heels, I’m not expecting much from them this year. Maybe 3rd or 4th in the ACC and a game or two deep into the NCAA (tournament). Of course, that’s a very good season for most teams. They’re loaded with talent, as usual, but I don’t think they’ve got the experience to do better in the conference or NCAA tourney this year.”
Turns out I overestimated the Heels’ season. After last night’s loss to (shudder) Duke (shudder), they’re 13-11 and unlikely to make the NCAA playoffs unless they have a phenomenal stretch run – the kind of intense, focused run that could only be inspired by a player like Psycho-T.
The team has been hampered by injuries that sidelined players who could have made a difference. Something else is plaguing this year’s Tar Heels, however, and coach Roy Williams has been unusually frustrated.
Williams has assembled his usual collection of highly talented athletes. But anyone who goes after a big prize eventually learns that once you reach a certain level of competition, exceptional talent alone is not enough to win because the other guys are just as good as you are. Beating players who are as good as you are takes willpower and a lot of hard work. Caulton Tudor, a veteran sportswriter for the News and Observer, noted that Williams said he’d never before had to coach effort.
Carolina has seemed astonishingly listless and indifferent at times, and I’m thinking the lethargy is directly related to Tyler Hansbrough’s departure. While he was at UNC, he showed the Tar Heels the kind of effort it takes to win, and his example motivated his teammates to give the effort it took to win a national title. Until another player emerges with that same drive – and until injuries heal and Carolina can consistently put their best five players on the floor – UNC will struggle.
So I guess the lesson, not very profound but certainly instructive, is that one person can make a tremendous difference in the effort exerted by a group of people. And the Tar Heels are suffering from the absence of Hansbrough’s intense desire to win.
(* The Tar Heels' six national titles include NCAA championships in 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009. In 1924, before the NCAA tournament started, they were named national champions by the Helms Foundation. The banner for the 1924 title is hanging in the rafters of the Dean Dome with the five NCAA banners.)
Photo of UNC coach Roy Williams by Chuck Liddy for the News and Observer