WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - More than a week has passed since the flagrant foul that left Tyler Hansbrough's nose broken and gushing blood. Yet the North Carolina star's injury is still the focus of attention as the Tar Heels prepare to open the NCAA tournament.
After playing through the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with a bulky protective mask, the sophomore wore a new mask during Wednesday's practice. He's hoping that the shield - more form-fitting than the previous one - will help him feel more comfortable on the court when the top-seeded Tar Heels play No. 16 seed Eastern Kentucky on Thursday in the first round of the East Regional.
"It's a lot tighter on the face and there's some things where it doesn't cut my vision like the old one did," Hansbrough said. "I think the old one kind of stuck out a little bit on my eyes. This one's more down onto the face."
Hansbrough sounds like anything would be better than playing with the mask he's worn since Duke's Gerald Henderson leveled him with an elbow in the closing seconds of the Tar Heels' win on March 4. Hansbrough said Henderson recently called him to apologize for the hit, which led to Henderson's ejection and a one-game suspension.
"It is frustrating," Hansbrough said. "I accept his apology and things like that. But at the same time, I have a broken nose. It's not comfortable wearing that mask all the time. I don't really know what to say to him besides, 'It happens. I accept your apology."'
Hansbrough, who had 26 points and 17 rebounds against Duke, hasn't been quite the same since for the Tar Heels (28-6). His numbers dipped during North Carolina's three-game run to its first ACC tournament title since 1998 as he dealt with the lingering effects of the injury.
The 6-foot-9 All-American forward was averaging 18.8 points and eight rebounds while shooting 53 percent in the 31 games before the ACC tournament. In the three games since the injury, Hansbrough is averaging 10 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting just 9-for-23. Hansbrough said it was difficult to breathe through his right nostril due to swelling during the tournament. And the old mask - which seemed almost to hover above his face - obstructed his vision when he turned for a hook shot.
His new mask seems to fit flush against his face, though he fidgeted with the plastic nose piece repeatedly throughout the Tar Heels' practice Wednesday. He also said his breathing had improved as the swelling went down.
"I think it's more physical," Hansbrough said. "The only thing I had a problem with is once you have a bad game in that mask, it can stay within your mind."
Regardless, Hansbrough would be a tough matchup for the Colonels 21-11), who won 11 of 13 games to reach the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons only to earn a first-round date with the Tar Heels in their home state.
Eastern Kentucky's tallest player, Darnell Dialls, is 6-8.
"Even with the mask, he's one of the most physical and aggressive players in the country," Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer said of Hansbrough. "I know his points per game and maybe his rebounds were a little bit down in the ACC tournament. He is still one of the most relentless guys around the basket."
It remains uncertain whether Hansbrough will wear the new mask - or any mask at all - for the first round. North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Hansbrough is "very, very close" to not having to wear a mask anymore, with Hansbrough likely to be the one to make that call with the blessing of the team's medical staff and his family.
"I trust the young man immensely," Williams said. "If Tyler tells me he desperately wants to do something, I'm going to say 'OK.' He's a big sucker. I ain't going to mess with the boy."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)