Before worrying about a likely showdown for the ACC title, North Carolina will honor Tyler Zeller and its seniors.
Zeller will lead a senior class playing its final home game for the sixth-ranked Tar Heels on Wednesday night when they look to complete a season sweep of Maryland.
North Carolina (25-4, 12-2) visits No. 4 Duke on Saturday night. That matchup is shaping up as a decisive game in the ACC race, and the winner could gain a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
"I don't know about everybody else," coach Roy Williams said. "But I think you want to put yourself in position to win the conference championship the last week. And if you do that, you've also put yourself in position to be in the NCAA tournament. You've also put yourself in position to get a fairly good seed in the NCAA tournament."
Zeller is the most notable member of this senior class playing in Chapel Hill for the final time. He's the only Tar Heel to be an Academic All-America first-team selection twice in his career.
On the court, Zeller is second on the team in scoring (15.7 ppg) and rebounding (9.3).
"He doesn't say much," said Williams about Zeller. "But when he does, the kids have a great deal of respect for him. I think they had that at the start of the season. But the way he's conducted himself in practice every day, the way he's played in the games, everything has just been on a positive nature."
The 7-footer is a major reason why the Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin at 11.4 - the best by an ACC team since South Carolina's 13.1 in 1969-70. John Henson has played an even bigger role, leading the conference with 10.4 boards per game, and has posted double-doubles in seven of the last eight games.
The Tar Heels have won their final scheduled home game in each of the previous 10 seasons, including all eight under Williams. He said the occasion means more to him than other coaches because he's "corny."
"I think that playing in the Smith Center the last time in front of those fans that supported you for four years is extremely important," Williams said. "The memories that you're going to have from those four years are going to be extremely important. The last time you do it, you want it to be special."
On the opposite bench from Williams will be his former assistant at Kansas in first-year Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. Williams was instrumental in helping Turgeon gain the job to replace Gary Williams with the Terrapins (16-12, 6-8).
These coaches spoke of their mutual respect in the build-up to North Carolina's 83-74 road victory Feb. 4. Zeller had 22 points and Kendall Marshall matched a career high with 16 assists.
Maryland point guard Pe'Shon Howard logged 32 minutes in that contest, but he's out for the season due to right ACL surgery. Howard missed the start of the campaign with a broken left foot.
Turgeon has used ACC scoring leader Terrell Stoglin and freshman Nick Faust at point guard over the 2-3 stretch since Howard's last game.
"I know Terrell can play point, but it's not his true position," Turgeon said. "It's definitely not Nick's. So no, I've never been through this, lose a guy twice."
The Terps, 1-7 on the road, have lost 13 straight to ranked teams.
- Tyler Zeller
- North Carolina
- Roy Williams
- Gary Williams