DETROIT - One of the principles of what Jay Wright calls "Villanova basketball" is that a team should be locked in at the defensive end, never reluctant to try to stop an opponent from scoring no matter the foul situation.
This rule will be tested tonight in the NCAA national semifinal game when North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, the all-time leader for free throws made, brings his unique foul-drawing skills to Ford Field.
The 6-foot-9 forward has deposited 968 free throws in his stellar career with the Tar Heels, 235 of them this season. He averages 8.6 free-throw attempts per game and makes the most of them, knocking down 85.8 percent.
"If you look at all the stats, like three-point shots made, that might be one of the most impressive stats you can have," Wright, the Villanova coach, said yesterday after putting the Wildcats through a 50-minute open workout on the elevated court. "You're getting a foul on your opponent, and you're getting two points.
"He does a great job of getting the defender out of position, and he's so strong that he actually creates contact with the ball. Lesser players use their shoulders, their arms. He uses the ball and puts it into your body. It's brilliant. You've got to be really strong to do that."
The Wildcats (30-7) have done a good job of controlling their fouls through the NCAA tournament. Only once has a player reached his limit in their four games - Shane Clark against Duke.
Dante Cunningham, the 6-foot-8 Villanova forward and the team's top scorer and rebounder, probably will have the primary defensive responsibility for Hansbrough, with the 6-7 Clark taking his turns on him inside.
Cunningham, who has said he dislikes playing it safe defensively lest he let down his teammates, isn't afraid to assert himself to prevent a basket. In the regional final, against Pitt, he sat out the final 7 minutes, 18 seconds of the first half with two personal fouls, picked up his fourth foul with 8:17 remaining, but did not get his fifth.
So he's not going to change tonight, considering what is at stake - a chance at playing Monday night for the national championship.
"You definitely have to play your game," said Cunningham, who has fouled out three times this season. "You can't let him score every time he gets the ball."
There is a fine line between defending aggressively and fouling, Cunningham said. "When the game starts, we'll find it and pretty much get it going," he said.
Cunningham said that Hansbrough was effective in drawing fouls with a pump fake, and that it was important for him to stay down and not bite on it.
Hansbrough, a three-time consensus all-American, leads the Tar Heels (32-4) in scoring, averaging nearly 21 points to go with a 52.1 percent shooting percentage. His 2,836 points rank 13th all-time in NCAA history, with Larry Bird standing 12th with 2,850.
Hansbrough scored only eight points in last week's 72-60 victory over Oklahoma in the regional final. It was only the ninth time in his 140-game career that he had not been in double figures.
"I had said that Tyler, if our team wins and he only scores six points, he's going to be happy," coach Roy Williams said after the game. "I wish I hadn't said that because he got only eight. But he was ecstatic with our team, and he's ecstatic with where he is. He's focused on our team."
Hansbrough's scoring average in the tournament is 17.3 points, more than three below his season total. Still, the Tar Heels have won their four NCAA games by an average of more than 22 points.
He knows he's going to be in for tough inside play tonight.
"We've been talking about being strong with the ball in the post because they're physical, and they're strong," Hansbrough said. "When you look at Villanova and some of their guard play, some of their toughness down low, it gets kind of overlooked."
If Hansbrough becomes more aggressive offensively, the Wildcats have to be smart. Besides Cunningham and Clark, their only other regular big man is 6-8 sophomore Antonio Pena, who has averaged only eight minutes in the tournament.
But the Wildcats have dealt with active bigs such as Pitt's DeJuan Blair and Notre Dame's Luke Harangody this season, and Wright is not going to make safety-first a major topic for his players.
"We're talking to them about it," Wright said. "But I'm sure every coach that's played against him has talked to our guys. We do not want to lose our aggressiveness."