DETROIT — He says the right things. He does the right things. And don't you simply hate Tyler Hansbrough for it?
He plays hard. He plays well. When it comes to Hansbrough, doesn't that make you crazy?
He is among the most accomplished college basketball players in history. And he has become a celebrity because of it. More than anything, doesn't that absolutely drive you up the wall?
College basketball's super-villain sits on a podium in a small area with curtains for walls on a Sunday afternoon, and he speaks cautiously about playing his final game for the University of North Carolina in tonight's championship against Michigan State. Somehow, you figure that's going to tick off someone, too.
He has this power, Hansbrough. He crawls underneath skin. He vexes opposing fans greatly. It does not matter if he has been knocked to the court, or if he dived after a loose ball. It does not matter that he hides his emotion or that he guards his responses.
Despite it all, Hansbrough possesses the uncanny ability to invite scorn.
In a different time, perhaps in a different uniform, certainly with different television analysts fawning over him, the world would embrace Hansbrough. And why not? His effort is unquestioned. His loyalty to his university — he has turned down three opportunities to turn pro — is admirable. His success is enviable. Frankly, if college basketball fans did not hate him so, they might even love him a little.
Alas, they do not.
Hansbrough is reviled. He is despised. It is not that Hansbrough seems to rub opposing fans the wrong way; he seems to enrage them more deeply with every point he scores. Hansbrough could have eaten a census taker's liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti, and he could have shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, and it would not bother fans more.
Everything about Hansbrough seems to bother the fans, from the "Psycho T" nickname to the fact he once admitted to liking pedicures to the fact that his praise vastly outweighs his pro potential to the fact that his eyes look too large to the fact that his smile comes rarely. Few players have ever been fouled as much as Hansbrough on the court, and few have ever been fumed at as often away from it.
More and more, this misguided passion is becoming an unsettling part of college basketball. A brand-name player hangs around a brand-name program, and his team prospers, and fans grow weary of seeing him on television.
It happened with Shane Battier when he played at Duke. It happened with J.J. Redick, also of Duke. It happened with Joakim Noah when he played at Florida. It is coarse and it is ugly and it is mean. And, anymore, it is common.
"They don't taunt you if you're bad," Hansbrough said. "But some people need to find something else to do rather than call a college kid at 2 or 3 in the morning to prank on him."
Five times, Hansbrough said, he has had to change his phone number. And yet, people find it. Daily, he said, he gets crank calls. Most of the time, fans tell him how overrated he is. Or how much they hate him.
"A lot of fans don't like him because of who he is, where he's at and what he's accomplished,'' teammate Danny Green said. "People hate on him because of the things he does and how he does it. People don't think he's as good as he really is, but numbers don't lie. He's put up some pretty good numbers.''
It is strange, because Hansbrough, a 23-year-old forward, has embodied most of what college basketball seems to want. He has said no to the NBA's money to hang around. He has scored more points than any player in ACC history. He has played in 140 games, and his team has won 119 of them. He has made three All-America teams. And tonight, his team plays for the title.
Yeah, those are some horrible accusations, aren't they?
"I've heard more criticism this year than I've ever heard," Hansbrough said. "People just don't like certain players. Even if we win, I'm sure there will still be people who think I'm overrated."
Perhaps. If you Google the words "Hansbrough" and "hate," you will get 254,000 hits. Be careful. Some of them might melt your computer monitor.
"I love to hate him," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I hate him because he knocks you on your tail. He's as tough as nails. He loves contact.
"There are two kinds of players: Seekers and avoiders. He is a seeker. If you're there, he's gonna hit you. That's what I love about him. But when I have to play against him, that's what I hate, because he is the ultimate competitor. He's going to find a way to beat you."
Tonight, Hansbrough tries it one more time. He'll bust it up and down the floor, and he'll hit the occasional jumper, and he'll play tough defense. The nerve of him.
And who knows? If things go right, perhaps Hansbrough will climb the ladder and snip the nets to celebrate a national championship. Maybe he'll jump up and down and celebrate. Maybe he'll laugh last.
Man, are his critics going to hate that.