Hansbrough playing with purpose
Tournament offers many a chance to change perceptions
Tyler Hansbrough looked up in the Dean Dome and said he would much rather see another championship banner hanging from the rafters than his retired jersey.
The question posed to him two years ago during an interview on the floor of the Smith Center wasn't a trap. If a player had said he wants to see his name up there more than a title he would be seen as egotistical and selfish. That hardly describes Hansbrough.
When asked how much winning a title played into his decision to come back for his senior season, Hansbrough said he wanted to return to college. He wanted to have fun, to jump off a fraternity house into a pool. That was his own way of poking fun at himself after last spring's picture of him doing just that made the rounds in the blogosphere.
Hansbrough doesn't have to win the national title to enhance his legacy at North Carolina, or, for that matter, his legacy in the sport.
The 2005 North Carolina team won the national title. But, years from now, would Carolina fans remember Sean May or Raymond Felton or Rashad McCants over Hansbrough? Not even close. Hansbrough's jersey will be up in the rafters because of his national player of the year award and perennial All-American status. Statistically, he will go down as one of the all-time greats in the ACC. But one of his greatest accomplishments during his four seasons at Carolina was leading the Tar Heels to the NCAA tournament in 2006. That was his freshman season and a year after that talented crop of juniors defeated Illinois, 75-70, to win the school's fourth NCAA championship before jumping to the NBA.
"His career is bigger than that," said Dave Odom, the former coach at Wake Forest and South Carolina. "There's always one more thing he can accomplish ... but if [his career ended] today he's one of the greats in all ACC history. He plays every possession as if it was his last and conducted himself as the ultimate student-athlete."
Odom said the way Hansbrough compiled his stats -- all-time UNC scoring leader, four-time All-American, 2008 national player of the year -- sets the Tar Heels forward apart from everyone else.
Duke's J.J. Redick was in a similar scenario -- a player who was outstanding, stayed four seasons, but didn't win a title in college -- yet he will be remembered as one of the best scoring guards in Duke history.
Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Al Horford won two national titles at Florida. They will likely be remembered collectively. Hansbrough and Redick might have a more lasting legacy on an individual basis.
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Hansbrough said the way the Tar Heels lost to Kansas in the national semifinal was his impetus to return, too.
That's not the way he wants to go out in the NCAA tournament. And while winning the title would cap an illustrious career, it isn't necessary for him to be held to a higher standard.
"He stands for what's good about college basketball," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "He didn't run and take the money. He's good for athletics, period. It's how hard you work and how hard you focus, and that's what he stands for in college basketball. That's why he'll be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever play [in college]."
Williams said Hansbrough never mentioned coming back to win the title when he decided to return for his senior season. He just told Williams how much he loves college.
Still, there's no denying that Hansbrough wants to leave with a title. It's in his makeup to win one.
"He wants to be a part of that team that wins one," North Carolina assistant coach Joe Holladay said. "At Poplar Bluff High [Mo.], they didn't give them a chance and he won two state titles. That's Tyler right there. But he'll be as popular as any player who has ever played at North Carolina -- by far. He's one of the few, like Phil Ford, that would be like that [if he didn't win a title]. Tyler stayed four years. The '05 team will be remembered but Tyler will be remembered by himself. He'd trade all of that [for a title], though."
Winning a championship, certainly, would enhance Hansbrough's legacy, but his lore won't be diminished if he doesn't help cut down the nets in Detroit.
Other possible perception changes
Jim Calhoun's best chance for a third title
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun battled cancer again last offseason, but he returned to the court in the fall with as much fight in him as he has had throughout his career. Nothing Calhoun has done this season shows a sign of his slowing down. He's as fiery as ever on the court, and he still pushs his players in practice as hard as he has throughout his career.
While the Huskies continue to recruit well, this is clearly Calhoun's best shot to win a third national title. Speculating on how close he is to retiring is moot. A health reason might be the only way he decides to settle down from October to April.
Still, in the future he might not have the components in place the way he does this season. Calhoun has a game-changing defensive player in 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet, someone who can alter and affect the entire game if he plays up to his potential. He has an elite senior guard in A.J. Price, who has battled back from multiple health scares (brain, knee) as well as one run-in with the law (theft), to mature into the team's leader and a reliable scorer. He has an unheralded MVP on the boards in senior Jeff Adrien, who loves his role.
Thabeet is expected to jump to the NBA after this season. Adrien's and Price's eligibility are up. Calhoun can put himself on another stratosphere of college coaches with three national titles. It's hard to project but not that much of a reach to say this is his best chance to get a third.
Pittsburgh past the Sweet 16
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon doesn't shy away from the obvious: For the Panthers to be taken seriously as one of the premier programs nationally, getting to a Final Four usually helps promote the premise.
Assuming Dixon stays at Pitt, and there's no reason why he won't, the Panthers will have other opportunities to advance. But during Dixon's career he has never had the pieces in place the way he does this March.
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Star underclassmen have been the story the past few seasons. But upperclassmen usually win titles, save for the sophomore-led class in Florida's first championship in 2006. Those sophomores returned as juniors in 2007 and won the title again.
Dixon has a senior point guard in Levance Fields, a senior star forward in Sam Young and a senior role playing forward in Tyrell Biggs. He has a big-time talent in the middle in sophomore forward DeJuan Blair and scoring off the bench, led by Brad Wanamaker.
Pitt won't be considered a lesser program if it bows out early, but this is Pitt's best shot to alter its image to the mainstream fan. A major difference this season is the Panthers are a No. 1 seed. That provides them the better opportunity to at least get to the Sweet 16. Beating Oklahoma State or Tennessee won't be a walk since both are capable of running past the Panthers. But Pitt should be favored to get at least through the second round, where it could have a rematch with Florida State, a team the Panthers already beat earlier this season. The Panthers haven't been to the Elite Eight since 1974.
Gonzaga's best shot for the Final Four
The Zags are no longer the darlings of college basketball. The Cinderella tag is long gone. This is an elite program that recruits at a high level and finds players who will flirt with the NBA. Gonzaga plays a national schedule, is consistently ranked and receives plenty of praise from the selection committee, as evident by a No. 4 seed.
As long as Mark Few doesn't get tempted to leave, the Zags will remain a player nationally. But the fact is, since reaching at least the Sweet 16 each season from 1999-2001, Gonzaga has been back to that round just once -- when an Adam Morrison-led team lost a heartbreaker to UCLA in a 2006 regional semifinal.
As for these Zags, they are playing their best basketball heading into the NCAA tournament for the first time in years. Gonzaga comes in on a roll, easily sweeping through the WCC tournament. It had nothing to do with the conference tournament not being held on a campus this season but rather on a neutral court in Las Vegas. Gonzaga was the better team from start to finish and it wasn't close.
The Zags have two seniors, point guard Jeremy Pargo and forward Josh Heytvelt, who have proven they can play with anyone in the country. Matt Bouldin and Micah Downs are playing their best basketball, and Austin Daye is always capable of becoming a mismatch. A 4-seed usually has to take down a No. 1 in the Sweet 16 if it's going to advance to the Elite Eight. The Zags drew North Carolina. If, and this is a big if, the Zags play up to their potential, and the Tar Heels' Ty Lawson isn't 100 percent, this is doable and means the Zags have a credible shot to make the Final Four.
Coach K has the chance for a rare double
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has won three national championships. He consistently coaches one of the best teams in the country. He's in the Hall of Fame. And he just won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing, helping restore the pride in USA Basketball.
Krzyzewski has a shot to win both the Olympic gold medal and college basketball's national title in the same season (maybe not calendar year but who is quibbling about semantics). After leading Team USA to gold in Beijing, Krzyzewski made the move that Elliot Williams should play more on the perimeter and, more importantly, put Jon Scheyer at the point. The moves completely changed the fortunes of Duke, which already had two elite players in Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler. Now the Blue Devils have got the right mix on the court and are as legit a candidate to win the NCAA tournament as any of the other No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. Duke's run to the ACC tournament title was nearly derailed by Boston College in the quarterfinals, but convincing semifinal and championship game wins proved that the Devils can win a national title this season.
UCLA reaches four straight Final Fours
This might be asking too much of the Bruins, especially since UCLA was dealt a 6-seed and shipped to Philadelphia. The Bruins likely will have to get past Villanova, Duke and Pitt to reach to the Final Four. But this Bruins team hasn't shown that it could do that this season.
Point guard Darren Collison returned for his senior season in hopes of leading the Bruins to the Final Four. But he can't do it alone. He'll need more help from freshman guard Jrue Holiday, senior wing Josh Shipp and senior forward Alfred Aboya. This Bruins team isn't defending as well as it had been in the three previous trips to the Final Four. UCLA also had the best big man a year ago in Kevin Love and an unheralded rebounder in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Coach Ben Howland already has elevated himself as one of the great coaches in the game today. He has made UCLA the dominant West Coast school in both recruiting and on the court. Getting to a fourth straight Final Four with this team would be unprecedented in this one- or two-and-done era.
John Calipari gets to back-to-back Final Fours
Memphis is on a remarkable run recently. The Tigers reached the Elite Eight in two straight seasons before reaching the Final Four last season and then advancing to the national title game.
If Memphis, which received a No. 2 seed, were to get to the Final Four again this season after losing Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey, it would be yet another accomplishment for Calipari, who continues to move up as one of the best coaches in the sport. Calipari is outspoken and is easily criticized for not playing in a power six conference. But he still wins -- consistently. His teams have not lost a conference game since 2006! The Tigers' defense has been hard to penetrate of late and might be the reason they have a legit shot to get to the Elite Eight and possibly upset Connecticut. The move of putting Tyreke Evans at the point has worked out brilliantly as the Tigers haven't lost since it occurred. Off the court, Memphis continues to recruit at a high level and could put together the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for next season.
Kansas gets to the Final Four again
Coach Bill Self, who might just edge out Calipari as the national coach of the year, wasn't given much of a chance to win the Big 12 title after losing all but two players who contributed to the national title win over Memphis. But the unheralded recruiting class has exceeded expectations.
The Jayhawks' road to the Final Four is daunting as a No. 3 seed in the Midwest with No. 2 Michigan State and No. 1 Louisville in the same bracket. But Self's leading his team deep into the Big Dance after winning the Big 12 outright would be quite an encore after winning the title. Self has already been to Elite Eights with Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas. But to win the national title again, after all the Jayhawks lost, would elevate one of the stars in the profession even higher.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.