Commentary

Marquee matchup a shining moment

Originally Published: March 28, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It won't be Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson, the 1979 NCAA championship game matchup that still ranks as the most-watched college basketball game in history and changed the face of the sport forever.

[+] EnlargeTyler Hansbrough
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireTyler Hansbrough is aiming to lead North Carolina to a second consecutive Final Four -- and his first national championship.
But during an NCAA tournament that has so far been devoid of many truly shining moments, Sunday's South Regional final between No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 2 seed Oklahoma at FedExForum finally gives us something to be really excited about.

Blake Griffin versus Tyler Hansbrough.

Hansbrough, the UNC forward, might be one of college basketball's last four-year stars, after he returned to the Tar Heels for his senior season and one last chance at winning a national championship.

Griffin, the OU forward, is expected to leave the Sooners after only his second college season. The 6-foot-10, 251-pound sophomore from Oklahoma City is expected to be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft.

With so much at stake Sunday -- the winner advances to next week's Final Four in Detroit -- their individual matchup might possibly be remembered as one of the most anticipated in NCAA tournament history.

"I have so much respect for Tyler and for what he's done," Sooners coach Jeff Capel said. "And really, you have everything that's right about college basketball with these two kids. Tyler staying in school for four years and breaking every record at North Carolina and in the ACC, and then Blake turning down the money last year and coming back. Both of them have been great ambassadors for college basketball. They do things the right way. They play the game the right way."

And they've largely played the game better than anyone else over the past two seasons.

Hansbrough is the first four-time, first-team All-American in ACC history. He set the league's career scoring record this season and can become one of the top 10 scorers in NCAA tournament history with nine points against the Sooners.

Griffin said he has admired how Hansbrough played the game during the past four seasons. Hansbrough was the 2008 national player of the year and will become one of only eight UNC players to have his jersey number retired.

"Just his tenacity, I guess, the way he doesn't stop playing hard and how he doesn't stop until he's either made it or he's gotten fouled, which happens a lot," Griffin said. "He just seems like he never gives up and he's always ready to go."

Griffin, who is expected to be named this season's national player of the year, averaged 30.3 points and 14.7 rebounds in the Sooners' first three NCAA tournament games. He is the first player to score 25 points and grab 10 rebounds in his first three tournament games since Davidson's Mike Maloy in 1969.

Griffin also made 78.7 percent of his shots in Oklahoma's first three NCAA games, which is second-best in tournament history among players who averaged at least five shots in three games (Duke's Christian Laettner made 78.8 percent in 1989).

"There's nothing that concerns me more than Blake," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "He's a guy that can get 40 [points] and 20 [rebounds]. There's not many of those guys around very often. So that does concern me more than anything else."

While Griffin and Hansbrough are clearly the biggest stars on their respective teams, their supporting casts might have a bigger impact on the game's outcome. With Griffin getting so much attention from the Tar Heels, perimeter players such as Tony Crocker and Willie Warren will have to knock down shots.

North Carolina can attack the Sooners in myriad ways, with point guard Ty Lawson, shooting guard Wayne Ellington and forward Danny Green each averaging more than 13 points.

And even though most eyes will still focus on Griffin and Hansbrough inside, the two probably won't spend much time guarding each other. Griffin's brother, Taylor, will probably draw the unenviable assignment of trying to slow down Hansbrough. The Tar Heels could run a rotation of players at Blake Griffin, including Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis.

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
Bob Donnan/US PresswireBlake Griffin is averaging 30.3 points and 14.7 rebounds in the NCAA tournament.
"I guess I can understand the hype," Williams said. "I wouldn't enjoy it at all because I think one-on-one is stupid. I don't enjoy watching dunk contests because I never could do those kinds of things. But during the confines of the team play, I'd love to watch that."

Griffin and Hansbrough both say they don't intend to turn Sunday's game into a glorified contest of one-on-one. With a trip to the Final Four on the line, there's obviously much more at stake than personal bragging rights.

"It's exciting, but like I said last night, it's not going to be a one-on-one battle by any means," Griffin said. "It's going to be Oklahoma versus North Carolina. That's how we plan to play them. I'm not going to try to break away from a team concept and try to show him up or anything like that. I have no problem with him. He's a great player. He's been a great player for four years now. I have a lot of respect for him."

Hansbrough, a 6-9, 250-pound native of Poplar Bluff, Mo., insists he doesn't watch much college basketball on TV. So Hansbrough says he really doesn't know much about Griffin's game.

"Clearly, he's a good player," Hansbrough said. "I understand the hype surrounding him, and I've seen some highlights of him. He's a pretty impressive player. I'm not going to try to go out there and try to have a one-on-one match with him. I'm going to try to do whatever my team needs me to do to win. That's just going to be my focus."

With Hansbrough's decorated college career winding down, Williams senses his star player is more determined than ever to keep playing.

The Tar Heels were upset by No. 11 seed George Mason 65-60 in the second round of the NCAAs during Hansbrough's freshman season in 2006. They lost to Georgetown 96-84 in overtime in the regional finals the next year, and then lost to eventual national champion Kansas 84-66 in the national semifinals last season.

"It's more serious because it's his last go around," Williams said. "I don't think he's been more demonstrative. He's a little more serious because he doesn't get any other chances after this year. But I don't think that Tyler Hansbrough can take it to a different level because I don't think that different level exists."

It's hard to imagine Griffin playing any better, either. After recovering from a concussion he suffered in a loss at Texas in late February, Griffin has been the most dominant player in the NCAA tournament.

"It is unique," Williams said. "There's no question about that. He led the nation in rebounding. The mix of the explosiveness, the quickness in doing it, the power -- you know, you don't find that very often. Boy, there's been some great players in the college game, from Patrick Ewing, [Hakeem] Olajuwon, David Robinson, all the way down. And all of them did it a little bit differently. It comes in different packages, but it's hard to imagine anybody's got a better package that Blake has."

Not unless it's Hansbrough.

"The camera's going to be on both of them," Williams said. "They'll have the split screen, and they'll compare at halftime who's got what. But [Hansbrough] is going to be concerned about whether North Carolina is a winner."

And so will Griffin.

Mark Schlabach covers college basketball and college football for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

ALSO SEE