Heels hit road with no idea when Hansbrough will return

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Tyler Hansbrough was the last one to walk off the court Tuesday night after making his way through a handshake line with Kentucky.

No one seemed to notice that the reigning national player of the year, one of the most recognizable faces in college basketball, was making his way to the North Carolina locker room.

Less than an hour later, Hansbrough was again in the public eye, this time in sweats instead of a suit, catching up with his mother and girlfriend -- and once again he left the Smith Center floor without fanfare.

But the subject is not taboo. Hansbrough answers the question about when he will make his season debut after suffering a stress reaction in his right shin during preseason practice.

"I'd like to be on the court Friday," Hansbrough told ESPN.com, referencing the Tar Heels' next game at UC Santa Barbara as they make their way toward Hawaii for Monday's Maui Invitational opener against Chaminade. "I hope I'm ready to go."

The truth is, if the decision were up to Hansbrough, according to coach Roy Williams, the senior already would have played, either in North Carolina's season-opening victory over Penn on Saturday or in the 77-58 rout of Kentucky on Tuesday night.

"People don't remember what you do right now," Williams said. "Tyler doesn't remember his senior year in high school when he missed the first three or four games because he couldn't tell me what his injury was. He had forgotten it, but he can tell you he won the state championship."

Williams said he doesn't want to be vague, but he doesn't know exactly when Hansbrough will play. Hansbrough said he'll practice in advance of Friday's game with the Gauchos, but Williams said he wants to see Hansbrough active and see how he feels. Regardless of when Hansbrough plays, Williams said the injury will be a "concern of mine for several weeks."

Carolina's luxury in taking a slow approach on Hansbrough's return was made even more obvious against Kentucky -- even with the potential hand/wrist injury to freshman Tyler Zeller that occurred with 1:26 remaining when Zeller missed a one-handed flush dunk and grabbed his left hand (Williams said Zeller would be taken for X-rays late Tuesday night).

The Tar Heels are getting exceptional play from junior forward Deon Thompson (20 points and 9 rebounds) and continue to show depth with Zeller (at least until he got hurt) and fellow freshman Ed Davis (10 rebounds, following his 14-board effort in the opener).

Competing on the boards -- without Hansbrough and Marcus Ginyard, who is out with a stress fracture in his left foot -- is significant. North Carolina also forced Kentucky into 28 turnovers.

Williams said he's taking a conservative approach regarding the return of the two seniors, no matter how well the Tar Heels are doing. But their teammates acknowledge that their early-season play, especially defensively, is taking the pressure off Hansbrough and Ginyard as they rehab, and will keep them from returning too quickly.

"If we were losing games, they might want to rush to get back out there," Thompson said. "This way they can take their time."

Ginyard is pragmatic about the rehab time. He fully understands this is a marathon to March, not a sprint. Playing five of the next six games away from Chapel Hill over the next two weeks -- three in Maui and one against Michigan State in Detroit in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge -- isn't conducive to rehabbing players.

"I definitely want to take it slow and make sure I'm ready," Ginyard said. "I can't really push it too early."

Ginyard said Hansbrough wants to be on the court, too, but the impressive 2-0 start without them makes it "reassuring for us."

As Kentucky turned the ball over early and often in the first half, and the Tar Heels raced out to a 21-point lead, it was easy to forget that Hansbrough and Ginyard are on this team. But as the Wildcats settled down, chipped away at the lead and ultimately outrebounded the Tar Heels (34-31), seeing Hansbrough and Ginyard in street clothes was a quick reminder of how much they'll be needed to compete for a national title, let alone in the ACC.

"This is all good, and [Hansbrough] can see we're taking care of business," said junior guard Wayne Ellington. "He can take his time getting back to being 100 percent."

Knowing Hansbrough, he won't miss a minute more than he needs to this season. He could play Friday against UCSB, or maybe in one of the games in Maui. There is no timetable, no set plan, just a cautious attitude that the Tar Heels aren't about to take a chance on losing Hansbrough for when the season matters most -- in March.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.