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January 27, 2009
Uche Echefu has three years worth of bruises to show for his head-to-head battles with North Carolina All-American center Tyler Hansbrough. What the Florida State senior does not have is a single career victory against the Tar Heels.
Leonard Hamilton's Seminoles can send four true post players and forward Chris Singleton in to battle Hansbrough and his UNC frontcourt mates Deon Thompson and Ed Davis.
"Last year you had just me and Ryan (Reid)," Echefu said following Monday's practice. "This year we've got five guys that can rotate and play the same position and I think that's going to be a big plus for us. Coaches can sub us like every two minutes, ask us to go in there and play hard and limit Hansbrough's touches."
Like the rest of the nation, the 'Noles have had limited success dealing with Hansbrough, who is averaging 18.3 points and 10 rebounds in six career meetings against FSU. A relentless competitor with a keen understanding of the game, Hansbrough has found ways to hurt the 'Noles even on nights when Echefu & Co. have been able to hold him down from the floor.
In the first of three meetings last season, the 'Noles held the 6-foot-9 big man without a field goal for just over 30 minutes. When the night was done Hansbrough finished with 22 points and a career-high 21 rebounds, leading the Tar Heels to an 84-73 overtime victory in Tallahassee. Despite a 5-for-14 shooting performance, Hansbrough converted 12-of-14 free throws and stepped up with eight points and five rebounds in overtime, after Reid's lone career 3-pointer set up the bonus basketball session.
"If you're going to play Tyler you just have to get ready to play solid defense and stay on both of your feet for 40 minutes, because he's an aggressive guy, going hard every possession," said Echefu, who along with Reid and the coaches are preparing freshmen Solomon Alabi and Xavier Gibson for their first encounter with the decorated big man. "The more touches he gets, the more confidence he gets going to the free throw line and drawing fouls."
Limiting Hansbrough's touches is the focal point of FSU's defensive scheme.
"For a young, long, slender kid like Solomon, it's a challenge," FSU associate head coach Stan Jones said. "Hansbrough has been doing it for a long time. He's got a low center of gravity. He's very strong and he spreads out so much in the post, sometimes it makes it difficult for a long, thin kid who is still gaining his muscle maturity to get to those spots.
"Solomon is going to have to work very hard and when (Hansbrough) does get the ball, Solomon has got to use his length without fouling; to take blows and deal with and give some blows and deal with it. It's a big challenge for all young kids."
It's a point Echefu spent Monday's practice hammering home to his Nigerian countryman.
"I was talking to him (Alabi) before practice and said, 'If you're going to play Tyler you have to bend you knees. I know it's hard for you. You're 7-1, but if you can't play with your knees bent, he's going to draw fouls on you,'" Echefu said. "We need him in the game."
At 7-foot-1, Alabi figures to make it difficult for the UNC guards to get the ball inside as he fronts Hansbrough.
After watching Hansbrough go for 64 points and 36 rebounds in last season's three meetings, Alabi welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the cause.
"It's a challenge," Alabi said. "I give him (Hansbrough) credit. He's a hard-working, tough guy. It's a challenge we have to take, and I have to take it too. I've been working hard trying to stay low so I can be strong. I want to make sure I play strong so I can contribute a lot for the team so we can stop him from getting the ball in the post."
That neither Echefu or Alabi will have to go it alone in the post for the 'Noles is a source of optimism.
"What it does for you is it gives you a few more fouls to not be as stressed out about, where guys can maybe continue to play a little more aggressive," Jones said. "It keeps guys a little more aggressive when they know there is depth on the bench that they know can come in and hold the fort for some time until they can come back in game.
"If you don't play aggressively against Tyler Hansbrough he's just going to wear you out; he's that physical, that aggressive, that well-conditioned."
Previous match-ups against Pitt's DeJuan Blair and Cincinnati's Yancey Gates - a pair of physical post opponents - should better prepare the FSU post players for contending with Hansbrough.
It doesn't hurt that all four of FSU's primary post players bring different skill sets to the table at both ends of the floor. In theory, Reid can match Hansbrough's muscle - as he did last season in Tallahassee - while Echefu brings savvy and quickness to the mix. Alabi's 4-inch height advantage and Gibson's athleticism will give the UNC big man a variety of styles to combat.
Playing Hansbrough and the 'Heels evenly on the glass is equally critical in stopping UNC's transition game before it gets started. The Seminoles would love to force Roy Williams' club into a half-court game, where wing players like Jordan DeMercy, Derwin Kitchen and Singleton are better suited to defend against sizeable wings Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, and shrink gaps for point guard Ty Lawson will try and exploit.
"I like the match-up a lot better," Jones said. "Hopefully that's going to give us a much better advantage. We've got more depth now. When they can sub, we can sub a little bit.
"It's much better. Does that mean we can win? We'll have to see."