The population of Poplar Bluff, Mo., could fit inside North Carolina's Dean Smith Center.
This season, the 16,000 or so people in the rural town probably wish they could have visited Chapel Hill.
Poplar Bluff favorite son Tyler Hansbrough led the Tar Heels to a surprising 21-6 regular-season record and a win at rival Duke while becoming Rivals.com's National College Basketball Freshman of the Year.
"We have Tar Heel Nation in Butler County, Missouri," said Gene Hansbrough, Tyler's father.
Tyler Hansbrough led Poplar Bluff High to back-to-back state titles during his last two seasons, but the hometown fans have had plenty more to cheer about this season.
Averaging 19 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, Hansbrough is the first freshman to earn unanimous All-ACC first team honors. He was the unanimous choice for ACC Freshman of the Year after winning the rookie of the week award a record-tying 10 times. He is also set to become the first North Carolina freshman to lead the Tar Heels in scoring and rebounding.
Residents of Poplar Bluff, a town situated about 150 miles from St. Louis and Memphis, tracked Hansbrough's season several ways: on local radio broadcasts, in the Hansbrough update in the hometown newspaper, on the tyler50.com Web site started by a Poplar Bluff resident, or by asking those in the know – his parents Gene and Tami Hansbrough or Tyler's high school coach, John David Patillo.
"I can't go many places without people wanting to talk about him, so I can't imagine what it's like for him," Patillo said. "Everybody around here was crazy about Tyler anyway, not just from our immediate area, but the whole state."
And with one signature moment after another, Hansbrough has made sure his exploits are known outside of Missouri.
He scored 21 points against Gardner-Webb in the season opener. He followed that by scoring 20 or more points in each of his first three ACC games against N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Miami. He followed that up with an 18-point, 10-rebound performance against Virginia in the fourth conference game.
A month later, he scored a Dean Dome-record 40 points to go with 10 rebounds against Georgia Tech. Hansbrough played his signature game two weeks later.
Against No. 1 Duke in Durham, N.C., Hansbrough scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Tar Heels' 82-75 upset March 4.
"The Georgia Tech game, I don't think there's any doubt that people noticed him before that, but that moment stood out," Patillo said. "Then, you go into Cameron Indoor Stadium as a freshman, I can't imagine what that feels like."
Along the way, Hansbrough got the best of another unanimous All-ACC selection, Duke's Shelden Williams.
"That was like nothing I ever experienced in my whole life," said Gene Hansbrough, who attended the game. "If the building had blown up, I wouldn't have been surprised."
Tyler, who is more apt to discuss picking a major than basketball with his father, was beaming with excitement when he met with his family more than an hour after the game.
"He was genuinely ecstatic after the Duke game," Gene Hansbrough said. "That was the excitement I haven't seen since he beat Vashon (for the state title) as a senior."
Patillo wasn't surprised when Hansbrough starred for the Tar Heels. After all, Patillo started Hansbrough as a high school freshman after only three games.
The losses of Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Sean May and Marvin Williams to the first round of the NBA Draft made it easier for Hansbrough to have an immediate impact in Chapel Hill.
"I don't think there's any doubt that the coaching staff had every intention that Tyler was going to play. To what degree, who knows," Patillo said. "When you lose as many players as they did, it's going to open some doors with some kids. Tyler got the opportunity. That's what's been the key for him."