DETROIT — Even at the Final Four, North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson has been a polarizing figure. With a black cap pulled tightly over his head, he slumped in his chair Friday afternoon as the media entered the locker room and made a beeline for his seat. Lawson steered himself into controversy again this week as the Tar Heels (32-4) prepared to meet Villanova (30-7) in today's 8:47 p.m. NCAA semifinal.
He believes people saw him as lazy early in his career because he tried to create shots for his teammates rather than himself. He overcame that label to win ACC player of the year honors and the Bob Cousy Award as the nation's best point guard as he has steered the Tar Heels into the Final Four.
Yet there he was again, surrounded by media in a debate over athletes' gambling. He had revealed that he won about $250 playing a legal game of craps at the Greektown Casino after arriving in Detroit on Wednesday night.
"Everybody's blowing it out of proportion," he vented. "We're down here, four days, three days before the game, nothing to do. Really, I don't see what the big problem is. It's not like I'm doing it right before a game."
If nothing else, Lawson should be used to this. Even after motoring his team to its second straight Final Four, he acknowledged that for much of his career he has felt misunderstood by fans and the media.
One of Lawson's favorite pranks came at the expense of Williams and one of the team managers.
Williams likes to pour a bottle of Coke or Sprite into a cup to have something to drink while the team is watching film. One day Lawson hid the coach's soft drink while the Tar Heels were watching clips of an opponent.
Lawson said Williams became angry and pestered a bewildered team manager about what happened to the missing drink. When Lawson revealed his ruse, he said, Williams stopped yelling and started smiling.
Such practical jokes have resulted in Williams nicknaming Lawson "Dennis the Menace." Freshman reserve point guard Larry Drew II said Lawson likes to mess up his teammates' hair when they're trying to stay neat.
Drew isn't fond of Lawson's pranks.
"It's a little irritating sometimes, but it's all fun and games," Drew said. "It's what makes him unique."
Lawson said he's been misunderstood by people who interpreted his laid-back demeanor as laziness. Early in his career, if he couldn't get a fast-break basket, he would pass the ball around the perimeter or feed Tyler Hansbrough or Brandan Wright in the post.
He believed his job as point guard was to feed teammates who were better scorers than he was. He wasn't being Dennis the Menace.
He was being Mr. Congeniality.
"I was getting them shots, and I felt if they were scoring more everybody would be happy and we would play a lot better," Lawson said.
That outlook changed during the summer after he declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft and worked out for pro teams before ultimately returning to school for his junior season.
He decided he needed to penetrate into the lane more to create openings for his teammates. He became even more resolved after he was upstaged by guards Tyrese Rice of Boston College and Jeff Teague of Wake Forest as North Carolina lost its first two ACC games.
"He was as down as I've seen him," Drew said. "After that he just came out with a whole new attitude, a whole new approach."
As Lawson became more aggressive, defenders couldn't sag into the lane to help against Hansbrough, especially if Lawson was going to punish them with an improved 3-point shot.
When Lawson dipped his shoulder and drove, defenders had to leave his teammates to help stop him from getting to the basket. Lawson began scoring more and got his teammates opportunities that they never would have had when he played more passively.
"If I drive and shoot a couple times, they'll come off to me and Tyler will get easy baskets, or they'll collapse to me and Wayne (Ellington) and Danny (Green) will get easy baskets," Lawson said.
Suddenly, Lawson became the most important player on a team that had last season's national player of the year in Hansbrough. Now, as the Tar Heels prepare to meet Villanova, Lawson is in position to atone for one of the biggest disappointments of his career.
Lawson said assistant coach Joe Holladay said last year's NCAA semifinal loss to Kansas was one of the worst games he has ever played. Lawson admitted that he looked to get the ball to teammates and then get out of the way.
He shot 2-for-8 from the field, was held to nine points and had as many turnovers as assists (two) as Kansas eliminated the Tar Heels.
"I don't think I played well that game," Lawson said. "I was probably a little timid. It's a big stage."
He is back on that stage now a year later, a much different player. He has improved his 3-point shooting, become a leader and proven his toughness by playing in pain with a jammed right big toe.
Williams smiled and clapped Friday as he watched Lawson's fifth attempt at a halfcourt shot swish through the basket as the crowd roared late in the team's open practice session.
As Lawson walked off the court, fans begged him to look in their direction. He signed a copy of Sports Illustrated with his photo on the cover.
He signed a Carolina blue jersey with his number on it. He might be at the center of some controversy here.
But he's had a great season, and he's playing in the Final Four today. Things could be a lot worse.
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