Zeller’s big day lifts UNC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In the waning minutes of Kentucky’s 75-73 loss at North Carolina on Saturday, John Calipari summoned his players to the sideline and assigned them one, simple task.

Do not – under any circumstances – foul Tyler Zeller.

“Don’t send him to the free-throw line,” Calipari screamed at the Wildcats as they broke the huddle. “Don’t even touch him.”

It’s taken three years, but college basketball teams are finally scared of Tyler Zeller.

Tyler Zeller did it all for UNC in its 75-73 victory over No. 10 Kentucky in Chapel Hill.
(Bob Donnan / US Presswire)

And they should be.

Whether he was swishing 10 consecutive free throws in the final 4:19 to beat Kentucky or swatting the Wildcats’ shots three rows deep into the stands, the 7-foot Zeller made it clear Saturday he – and not freshman Harrison Barnes – is the main player capable of leading North Carolina back to the NCAA tournament.

Zeller finished with 27 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks – all career highs. His performance was huge for a Tar Heels squad that had fallen out of the Top 25 after losing three games in November.

“The longer the game went on, it was pretty obvious where the ball needed to go,” Tar Heels guard Dexter Strickland said. “He was on fire.”

Fans may just now be realizing it, but North Carolina has a true rarity in Zeller, a 7-foot junior with an NBA skill set who, somehow, is still in school.

Centers who are as good as Zeller usually don’t last more than two years in college. Zeller, though, has been the victim of a few unfortunate circumstances. He missed 23 games of his freshman season with a wrist injury and was out 10 games last season with a stress fracture in his right foot.

If he’d have been healthy enough to truly show his stuff, he’d be in the NBA right now along with other top post players such as DeMarcus Cousins (Kentucky), Cole Aldrich (Kansas) and Greg Monroe (Georgetown) – all of whom blossomed into lottery picks.

Zeller has that same kind of potential – but only if North Carolina continues to make him the focal point of its offense instead of Barnes, who has underachieved thus far. Barnes – who made the preseason All-American team before he ever played a college game – is averaging 11.4 points but is shooting just 34 percent from the field.

“Tonight was my night to step up,” Zeller said. “It may not be me every time, but tonight was my night.”

It’s admirable that Zeller is trying to say all the right things. But he needs to be more assertive and carry himself as if he’s the face of this team. It’s clear he’s good enough to prevent North Carolina’s program from falling back into the mediocre state it sunk to last season, when the Tar Heels had to settle for the NIT one year after winning the NCAA title.

When Roy Williams signed Zeller three years ago, he said the Indiana native ran the court better than any high school post player in the country that season. These days you could say the same thing about Zeller in college.

For a 250-pounder, Zeller has eye-popping athleticism and coordination. He also possesses an outside shooting touch to complement the great footwork that enables him to get open for easy shots under the basket.

There may not be a more versatile big man in college basketball.

Zeller said he spent much of his childhood working on long-range shooting, dribbling and free throws – he still shoots 50 per day – with his father, Steve, who stressed early on that fundamentals were the difference between a good player and a great one.

Kentucky's big men had no answer for UNC's Tyler Zeller on Saturday.
(Gerry Broome / AP)

That’s especially true when it comes to big men.

“I owe him a lot of credit,” said Zeller, who is shooting 52 percent from the field and 75 percent from the foul line. “He made sure I knew what was important.”

Sure, Zeller’s flashy stat line may have been tallied against a Kentucky squad that lacks depth and experience in the paint. Watch Zeller play long enough, though, and it’s obvious his skill set would make him a force against any opponent.

“He’s strong, he’s athletic, he makes hook shots and scores from long range,” said John Henson, Zeller’s partner in North Carolina’s frontcourt. “His game doesn’t have a weakness.”

That may not be entirely true.

Zeller needs to improve his passing skills, and there are those who contend he doesn’t always show toughness in the paint. But those things will correct themselves as long as North Carolina keeps giving Zeller the ball.

“This summer and last spring, I talked to him and he understood we needed him to step up and be the big-time player we know he can be,” Williams said. “He did that today.”

Saturday’s win over No. 10 Kentucky was refreshing for a North Carolina team that is already toting losses against Vanderbilt, Minnesota and Illinois. Still, it’s not as if the victory will cure all of the Tar Heels’ ills. Williams’ squad made just one of its 12 shots from beyond the arc Saturday and only shot 41 percent from the field.

Worst of all, North Carolina had trouble putting away a Kentucky team that started three freshmen and had four players foul out. Leading scorer Terrence Jones entered the game averaging more than 20 points. But he finished with only nine against UNC on 3-of-17 shooting.

Yet North Carolina only won by two points.

“I’m stunned we were in the game at the end,” Calipari said.

The Wildcats may have actually won if it weren’t for Zeller’s performance at the foul line. The shame of it all was that his parents weren’t in the stands to see it. Just before the game, Zeller was informed the private plane that was to take them from Indiana to Chapel Hill had experienced mechanical problems.

Hopefully they were able to watch the game on television.

Zeller, after all, put on quite a show.

“There is so much talent here,” Zeller said. “I’m still not 100 percent comfortable. Sometimes, in games, I feel like I can probably do something, but I know it might not be the best shot. I think maybe someone else could get a better shot.

“I guess I don’t always do what I’m capable of.”

Until he does, neither will North Carolina.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Dec 4, 2010