Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Is Tyler Hansbrough the best college basketball player of the last 20 years?

Has there ever been a more decorated college hooper? Four time all-american, and a three-time consensus first-teamer. He won a national player of the year award. He is the ACC's all-time leading scorer. He is college basketball's most prolific free throw shooter, ever. He is the first guy to lead his team in scoring and rebounding for four seasons in ACC history. Conference player of the year. All-ACC teams. The list goes on.

But now, it is complete.

With the win last night, Hansbrough silenced his doubters that said his legacy was not complete without a title.

Hansbrough celebrates his national title.
(photo credit: Detroit Free Press)

So now his legacy is complete. But what, exactly, is that legacy?

For the last few years, Hansbrough has been one of the most hated players in all the game, right up there at JJ Redick and Christian Laettner's level. He got all the foul calls, but was never called for a travel. He played too hard, but he didn't show enough emotion. He'll never make it as a pro, but he was dumb to come back for his senior season. He put up great numbers, but he wasn't as good as everyone says he is.

But doesn't being the best and being hated go hand-in hand? How many people love Kobe Bryant that don't wear purple and gold?

And let's face it, over the last four season, Hansbrough has been the best. Sure, Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant had great seasons, but I challenge you to name me one player that even nears Hansbrough level of play over this four year period.

So if he is the best over the last four years, how does that stack up with the players of the last 20? How do you determine "the greatest college basketball player?"

I see three criterion. First off, you have to have played at least three, preferably four, years in school. Part of what makes college athletes so amazing is that they are able to perform at a high level in the classroom as well as on the court/field/pool/etc. Carmelo Anthony taking one semester's worth of classes while leading Syracuse to a national title should not get him put into consideration.

The second is that you have to have won something. Conference crowns, made a Final Four, the Preseason NIT. Something. You cannot be the greatest even without having won anything.

The third, and maybe the most important is that you have to be remembered for what you did in college. Tim Duncan played four years at Wake Forest, leading them to a couple very successful years. Many people put him in the conversation as greatest college basketball player. But how many people can tell you, off the top of their head, where Tim Duncan went to college. Then think about how many can tell you where Laettner went to school.

Hansbrough passes all of these with flying colors. He passed on the NBA Draft three times, even though he probably hurt his draft stock in the process. He has won numerous ACC titles, reached two Final Fours, and now has won a national title. And I challenge you to find a single (knowledgeable) person that thinks Hansbrough can ever come close to duplicating his collegiate success in the league.

So was Hansbrough better than Laettner? There is no easy answer to that question, and odds are your choice probably centers more around the shade of blue you wear than on any factual evidence.

I will say this. I won't remember Hansbrough for his exploits on the court. I won't remember him for winning this title. I won't remember him for the ridiculous dances he did to celebrate.

Tyler Hansbrough seconds after the clock ran out last night.
(photo credit: AP)

What I will remember him for is putting team first. Think about this - Hansbrough, as good as he was, was not the MVP for this UNC team. He was not the focal point of what the Heels wanted to do offensively, and while he did average over 20 ppg, he was not the go-to player for this team.

That distinction would go to Ty Lawson. Hansbrough was in and out of the line-up during the season's first seven games, sitting out four of them and playing limited minutes during the other three. UNC's record: 7-0. Ty Lawson sat out two games during the ACC Tournament. UNC's record: 1-1.

This was best exemplified during the Elite 8 games against Oklahoma. Hansbrough was going to have a chance to go up against the guy that took his national player of the year title in Blake Griffin. Most players would salivate at the opportunity to make a statement in a match-up like this.

Not Hansbrough.

He finished with just 8 points and 6 boards, spending much of the game as a decoy (four field goal attempts) and a defender. Griffin? He went for 23 points, 16 boards, and a couple thunderous dunks, solidifying his standing as 2009 POY.

Hansbrough lost their 1-on-1 battle, but he won the war as the Tar Heels advanced to the Final Four with a 72-60 win.

And that was perfectly fine with Hansbrough. Why? Because he was all about UNC, all about his team, and all about winning.

That is how I will remember Hansbrough.

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