- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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DETROIT -- Tyler Hansbrough didn't know if he'd be here. No one did.
The stress reaction he suffered in his right shin in the fall had Hansbrough anxious. Of course it did. Hansbrough came back to college because he loved being at North Carolina. But he also came back to win a title.
Yet, here he was, unable to practice or play, shut down at the beginning of the season -- the last thing an ultracompetitive man named Psycho-T wants to have happen.
"I was so frustrated that I was injured," Hansbrough said Thursday at Ford Field in advance of Saturday's national semifinal against Villanova. "I was so down about everything -- my senior year, coming back to college -- and I was sitting on the sideline not knowing when I'll be back."
Carolina continued to give updates, but there was hardly any news for a few weeks as Hansbrough continued to rehab without the definitive news that he could return.
"My injury kept getting worse," the 6-foot-9 forward said. "But I'm happy to be back here right now. It makes me feel really good."
Hansbrough's early-season injury seems like it occurred during another season. He was healthy enough to play against Notre Dame in the Maui Invitational, where he scored 34 points in the championship game. He would sit for one more game upon the return to the mainland because of a turned left ankle.
But since December, Hansbrough has been back to being his reliable self. He not only scores plenty of points down low, but he boards, dives on the floor and even has a newfound confidence from the 3-point line (a career-high nine this season).
And what was most apparent Thursday afternoon was how much he has matured. Hansbrough still has that baby-faced look as the introverted kid from Poplar Bluff, Mo. But he's no longer naive to the world around him.
This is his last weekend as a college basketball player. His illustrious career will be over either Saturday or Monday. He won a player of the year award as a junior, was a first-team all-American for the fourth straight season (the first-ever ACC player to achieve that) and owns the UNC and conference all-time scoring record.
He said he's mentally prepared for the next step in his life. In previous years, he knew he had the crutch of returning. That allowed him to be a bit more carefree. Not anymore. He's a tad more serious. He gets that he was hated in the ACC because the Tar Heels won. He dealt with more criticism of his game this season than any other because of the "high expectations on him and that some people just don't like me. I don't really care about that. I play my game in a way that I think is effective."
Next week, the business of the sport begins as he gets ready for his NBA career. He said he'll miss the joking around in the locker room and the way Carolina students celebrate after a win.
But you don't get the sense he will miss the pressure that is on every Carolina player, especially him -- to win, not just every game, but the title.
"There was a lot of pressure because people said it would be a failure if you come back and don't win the national championship," Hansbrough said. "But I didn't come back just to win a national championship."
Advancing to Detroit alleviated some of the weight on his shoulders, but then again, the Heels got to the Final Four last year and lost badly to Kansas in a national semifinal. Hansbrough said the Tar Heels didn't handle that game well at all, coming in with a sense of just being pleased to be in the event. He even said the Heels came out "soft and real lackadaisical and right from the start we came out with the wrong mentality."
The Tar Heels weren't the team in the Final Four that they had been in the four previous games, he said. That didn't happen in the lead-up to this weekend. Carolina is peaking at the right time and Hansbrough has zero distractions.
This weekend, the Heels are the only team with any Final Four experience. A year ago, Hansbrough was accepting every national player of the year honor at the Final Four. This year he won't get one, as Oklahoma sophomore Blake Griffin will collect them all.
So, this is it. College basketball gets a weekend goodbye to one of the more prolific college players in recent memory. He won't be a star in the NBA. Once he's drafted in June and the NBA season starts next fall, he'll be just another rookie in the league, hardly a fixture and likely a rare request for postgame news conferences at the beginning of his career. He will start anew, working to find his niche, to continue to play the game he loves.
"I'm not sure I'll miss it," Hansbrough said of the attention he has received in college for four years. "But I understand I'm not going to be able to take the same shots. I know I'll be on a team and be a low-key player. It will be a different experience for me."
But one he clearly is ready to embrace as soon as he's done with his business here in Detroit, crossing off the last thing he wants to accomplish -- a national championship.
"It would be nice," Hansbrough said. "Who wouldn't want that on their checklist? But we have a lot of work to do. We're still in the process of getting it done."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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