Every now and then, Tyler Hansbrough admits he hears the praise.
It's nearly impossible for the North Carolina star to avoid the superlatives placed upon him. An all-conference pick? Probably. The national freshman of the year? By a landslide. The best freshman big man in ... forever? That might be a stretch.
And at the center of the well-earned hype? A dogged Midwestern kid savoring the success of a program many believed would need another season to contend even for an NCAA tournament berth.
"It's hard to block that out, [and] sometimes you have to listen," Hansbrough said. "When sometimes you're playing good, you can't just say, 'No, I'm not.' But you can't get a big head about it."
Hansbrough's avoided that so far as the No. 21 Tar Heels (18-6, 9-4 ACC) prepare to meet Maryland (16-10, 6-7) today in Chapel Hill, N.C. He leads Carolina in both scoring (18.8) and rebounding (7.5) and has helped keep the Tar Heels near the top of the conference despite the loss of the top seven scorers from last season's national championship squad.
With last season's stars off to the NBA, North Carolina entered the year with a roster littered with freshmen and veterans accustomed to minor roles. There were seemingly no big names to fear, no one who could lead the Tar Heels to a 20-win season and an extended postseason run.
Hansbrough didn't need much time to change that.
"For us, he was by far he was the best prospect in the country because of what he could bring us, and that was the inside scoring," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "I've never been one to prejudge, but I've always had hopes. I had some pretty high hopes, or we were going to be in trouble. He's so mentally tough and physically tough, and I thought he would be able to help from the get-go."
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound bruiser from Poplar Bluff, Mo., arrived in Chapel Hill last summer. For five weeks, Hansbrough worked in the weight room to improve his strength and avert the typical troubles freshmen encounter.
The results are impressive. Hansbrough has reached double figures in scoring in all but one game, he routinely outworks opponents for rebounds and his conditioning is unusually strong for a freshman (he has played at least 30 minutes in eight straight games).
"It is pretty amazing," said Miami coach Frank Haith, whose team has absorbed two 25-point outings from Hansbrough. "A lot of what Tyler is is just sheer determination. Usually that's the thing from high school to college that takes time kids to adjust to. He's at warp speed right now."
No game illustrated Hansbrough's dominance as well as his 40-point effort against Georgia Tech earlier this month. The output set an ACC scoring record for a freshman and a Smith Center scoring record.
Yet it was the manner he earned the points that was especially noteworthy. He pounded away at the Yellow Jackets, hustling to create scoring opportunities in a tight game.
"He beat us in such a variety of ways," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "He got to the foul line, got six offensive rebounds, beat us transition. We played hard, and he played harder than us."
Hansbrough's season naturally has prompted comparisons to other freshmen, as well as to past greats. Few big men have made an impact like Hansbrough has this season, although many weren't needed by their teams to be great until later in their careers.
Still, in a league that has produced the likes of Ralph Sampson, Joe Smith and Tim Duncan, Hansbrough's freshman year ranks among the most impressive.
"He's the best I've ever seen in terms of my 18 years in the business," Haith said. "He's so lethal. He's in such great shape, he never gets tired and he never stops working. I don't know if there's a big man that's come in and been that dominant."
For all the accolades, Hansbrough is most enjoying Carolina's semi-surprising season. He said he hasn't given any thought to the NBA as the Tar Heels head toward a high seed in next month's NCAA tournament.
"It's been really fulfilling because a lot of people kind of doubted us and kind of disrespected each one of us," Hansbrough said. "They said, 'You guys aren't going to be good,' and we definitely proved some guys wrong. We still want to keep on proving people wrong. Not too many people think we can do what we've been doing."