Mending Achilles' Heel

RALEIGH, N.C. – Finding a vulnerable crease in top-seeded North Carolina's armor has not been an easy task for opponents this season. But if you look behind Tyler Hansbrough's stout statistics inside, you'll find that he's been covering up a lack of production from his post counterparts – until Friday night, that is.

While the storylines surrounding the North Carolina program over the past seven weeks have centered around injuries, toughness, a 12-game winning streak and Hansbrough's Herculean charge to National Player of the Year honors, the lack of an emerging secondary post presence has only drawn attention from a select few.

But while Hansbrough (22.9 points, 10.2 rebounds) and Wayne Ellington (16.7 points, 4.3 rebounds) increased their production when Ty Lawson went down with an ankle injury at Florida State on Feb. 3, Deon Thompson's numbers regressed.

Entering Friday night's NCAA first round action, the Torrance, Calif. product was averaging 5.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game during the winning streak, down from his season average of 9.4 points and 5.5 rebounds. Knee and back injuries played a major role in the stat reductions, but an obvious loss of confidence permeated his game.

Fellow classmate and Californian Alex Stepheson maintained his play during the stretch, but failed to increased his nightly production of 4.3 points and 4.8 rebounds while Thompson struggled.

The difficulties came to a head for both players during last weekend's ACC Tournament, combining for a total of 20 points and 18 rebounds during the three Tar Heel victories en route to winning a 17th tournament title.

"It was a few things – most of it was mental," Thompson said of his play last weekend. "With my knee bothering me before, and then mentally not wanting to get hurt again to not playing as hard. So now that that's just out of my mind – mentally I'm there – it's just going to be a lot better."

Head coach Roy Williams met with both players earlier this week, encouraging his post players to provide his All-American some help in the post.

"Coach [Williams] did challenge us to step our play up," Stepheson said. "I think we're both taking that into consideration and taking that to heart."

On Friday night against Mount St. Mary's at the RBC Center, there was finally a breakthrough. Thompson scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Stepheson contributed a career-high 12 points and eight rebounds in the 113-74 laugher.

"It was just a good way to kick the tournament off and get the action going," Thompson said. "Hopefully it will give me some momentum to keep playing for the rest of the tournament. Just take what I did the other night and keep rolling with that."

Stepheson agreed.

"Coming into the tournament, I wanted to bounce back from the ACC Tournament," Stepheson said. "I don't think I played exceptionally well [in Charlotte], so I wanted to get a little momentum going for myself in using that first game as a momentum builder. So I've got a little confidence going and I'm feeling better and better."

That level of play must continue if the Tar Heels hope to take advantage of the East Region in Charlotte, N.C., next weekend. The task at hand is No. 9 seed Arkansas, which boasts four 6-foot-10 bodies and another 6-foot-8-incher down below in its nine-man rotation.

"I love their athleticism [and] I love their four or five 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10 guys inside that give them their depth," Williams said. "They can defend and rebound. They have fouls to use down there."

The Razorbacks have a variety of options to throw at Hansbrough, Thompson and Stepheson. There's senior Darian Townes (17 points, 12 rebounds against Indiana in first round action), who earned All-SEC Tournament team honors after averaging 17 points and six rebounds during the event.

There's senior Charles Thomas, who's averaging 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds over the past five games while connecting on 53.7 percent (22-of-41) of his field goals.

And then there's seven-foot senior Steven Hill (the fourth player in conference history to amass 300 blocks), a member of the All-SEC Defensive team and the 2006-07 SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

"He's a little different because he's not the greatest leaper," Williams said of Hill. "I'm not trying to say that as a negative for him, but he depends on timing more than anything. He's more of a cerebral [player]. He watches the guys and at the last moment, he's long enough to still get there… We've got to try to be forceful and take it right at him, just like I think you have to do with every shot blocker."

Another solid performance by Thompson and Stepheson will loosen up the paint for Hansbrough to work his brute force magic, and that may be the single most important key for North Carolina to make its NCAA-record 22nd Sweet Sixteen appearance.

"I think it's big, especially if [Arkansas] is going to double with two bigs, that's going to present Deon and Al with a lot of opportunities to get some offensive boards," Hansbrough said. "Definitely, they came out and helped us last night and hopefully they'll keep doing it."

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