THREE WEEKS intothe 2008--09 season, there is little reason to quibble with the preseasonconsensus choice of North Carolina as the No. 1 team. But the widely held viewthat Tar Heels senior forward Tyler Hansbrough will repeat as player of theyear? That prediction is on shakier ground.
To be sure,Hansbrough was averaging 21 points and 5.3 rebounds through Sunday aftersitting out four of North Carolina's first seven games with a stress reactionin his right shin. At the same time, players on three other top teams have madeit clear that even the battle for best big man in the country will be a horserace. Eleventh-ranked Oklahoma's 6'10", 250-pound sophomore forward BlakeGriffin was averaging 25.7 points and 19.2 rebounds while leading the Soonersto a 6--0 start and the preseason NIT championship. Pittsburgh's affable6'7", 265-pound enforcer DeJuan Blair, last year's Big East co--rookie ofthe year, was averaging 15.3 points and 12.3 rebounds for the fourth-rankedPanthers (7--0). And No. 8 Notre Dame's 6'8", 255-pound junior forward LukeHarangody, last year's Big East player of the year, was averaging 22.6 pointsand 11.2 rebounds through five games, numbers dragged down by the subpar 13points and seven rebounds he put up in a 102--87 loss to North Carolina in theMaui Invitational championship game while battling both Hansbrough andpneumonia.
All three playershave at least one thing in common with Hansbrough besides long arms, soft handsand quick feet. "They are relentless," says Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel.Adds Pitt assistant Tom Herrion, "Put them in a steel cage, throw a lid onthe rim, and you'd get a pay-per-view event watching them go at it."
Nobody has had ahotter start than Griffin, who already has two 30-plus-scoring games and three20-plus-rebounding games. In an 87--82 overtime win against then No. 9 Purduein the NIT title game last Friday, Griffin scored 18 points and grabbed 21rebounds despite constant double teams from the Boilermakers. And in a signthat his game is evolving beyond the brute power that marked it last year, noneof those points came on a dunk. "[Griffin] has expanded his game," saysCapel. "He's hitting 15- and 17-foot shots, turnaround jumpers and a jumphook pretty consistently."
Harangody, whoalready packs a full quiver of offensive weapons, has continued to expand therange on his unorthodox stroke, reshape his lineman's body, work on his defenseand improve as a passer. Through five games he had seven assists against seventurnovers. "That [ratio is] pretty good when you consider how much the ballis in his hands," says Notre Dame assistant Sean Kearney.
Like Griffin andHarangody, Blair can handle the ball well enough to push the break, but he ismost at home in the paint, where his 7'2" wingspan and ample,space-clearing backside help give him an advantage on the boards despite hisrelatively short stature. "He has an ability to get balls outside his area,which really separates him as a rebounder," says Herrion. Blair is stillprimarily a back-to-the-basket offensive threat, and he needs to work on histouch, particularly from the free throw line, where he shoots a dismal 53.3%.(Foul-shooting is also Griffin's Achilles' heel.)
Hey, nobody'sperfect. But whoever emerges from this season's player of the year field mayhave to come pretty close.
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SUE OGROCKI/AP (GRIFFIN)
BASKET BRAWLERS Griffin (left), Harangody (center) and Blair are all rugged finishers.
CHRIS CARLSON/AP (HARANGODY)
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KEITH SRAKOCIC/AP (BLAIR)
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