North Carolina coach Roy Williams said before Saturday's Michigan State game that freshman forward Brandan Wright better grow up in a hurry.
"This will be the most physical game he has played in his entire life," Williams said. "They will want to take care of that skinny freshman from North Carolina."
It turns out Michigan State did take care of him. If it happens again-if Wright has another nasty game at just the wrong time-I don't think the Tar Heels will survive in this tournament. He is too essential.
Wright scored a season-low three points against the Spartans. He had three turnovers and four fouls. Although he did manage seven rebounds, he got pushed around too often and looked nothing like the graceful ACC tournament Most Valuable Player he had been only one week before.
The Tar Heels saved themselves because of Tyler Hansbrough (33 points) and freshman point guard Ty Lawson (20 points, eight assists). But Michigan State wasn't as talented as the remaining teams the Tar Heels will face, starting Friday in the Sweet 16 against Southern Cal.
While Hansbrough is the Tar Heels' best player, Wright and Reyshawn Terry are the X factors. Wright ranks second on the team in scoring and rebounding and first in blocked shots. He alters shots and takes pressure off Hansbrough on offense. UNC has no one else quite like him.
When a masked Hansbrough wasn't himself in the ACC tournament, Wright, at 6-foot-9 and 205 pounds, shouldered the team. He was only the fifth freshman to earn ACC tournament MVP honors, joining Duke's Jason Williams and the Tar Heels' Sam Perkins, Phil Ford and Jerry Stackhouse.
"After more than 90 practices, Brandan still amazes me," point guard Bobby Frasor said. "He'll do stuff like come down on a break, pull up off one dribble and hit a jumper-nothing but net."
Wright also has the wingspan of a pteranodon and had eight dunks against Boston College in the ACC tournament. He quite possibly is one-and-done at North Carolina. He should be a top-five pick in the 2007 NBA draft if he renounces his eligibility. Given Michael Jordan's love of versatile players, Wright could be a future Charlotte Bobcat.
"I haven't really thought about the NBA," Wright said. "I'll talk to coach Williams about it at the end of the season."
Williams recruited Wright hard out of Nashville, Tenn.
When the coach saw Wright the first time, he thought of former Tar Heels standout Perkins.
Said Williams, recalling the moment last week: "I thought 'My gosh - left-hander, long arms, really thin, can run like crazy.' The first time I saw him I fell in love with him."
A lot of Tar Heels fans have the same ardor. Wright doesn't shoot free throws well - his 54.4percentage is the worst among the starters - but he's very good at everything else.
The Michigan State game was an exception.
Will there be another?