UNC’s Zeller shedding ‘soft’ label

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Tyler Zeller doesn’t listen to sports talk radio or read about his team in the newspapers or on the Internet. And that’s probably a good thing.

The 7-foot senior center for North Carolina has been the subject of criticism when segments of the media and fans try to rationalize why the No. 6 Tar Heels aren’t invincible.

Carolina was supposed to cruise through its schedule on a path to one of the more historic seasons in recent college basketball history. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

UNC (18-3) still might be the favorite to win the national championship, but the Heels are mortal, too. It isn’t like Zeller gets blistered daily, but the criticism has been pretty consistent, and Zeller has been a primary target. People say he’s soft.

“You can think whatever you want, but no matter what, those guys still have to go out and play me every night,” Zeller said.

Most athletes refuse to admit they pay attention to the media, though many do. Zeller, however, is believable saying he ignores everything.

“I don’t even know what awards I’m up for, I don’t read anything,” he said. “I just stay away from it.”

Zeller, who is among 20 men’s and women’s basketball student-athletes up for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, does hear some things, though. He can’t avoid some trickle-down stuff, including that “soft” tag.

“Every once in a while I’ll hear something, but being soft is something people have told me all the time, for the most part,” he said. “I don’t believe that, myself, but at the same time they can believe what they want.”

The Indiana native says being 7-feet tall is part of it. Whenever bigs lose the ball in the paint they’re often called “weak” or “soft.” Zeller occasionally brings the ball down too low, which can lead to problems. But his recent play suggests he’s just not soft, he’s been developing.

Zeller’s rebound numbers are up more than two a game from last season, when he had just six double-digit rebound games. He’s already at 11 this season, including 10 in Carolina’s last 13 contests. Among them was a 17-board effort in a rout of rival N.C. State.

He cites several reasons for the increased production, including a desire to reach double figure rebounds after finishing with nine eight times last season.

“Some of it is just you get older, you get more experience, you get better at doing what you do,” said Zeller, who is averaging 14.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest. “And rebounding is something I had to change a little bit. I try to stay in (battle) a little longer, and it is something I’ve been working on.”

The business administration major is also getting more shots to the rim than a year ago and even earlier in this campaign. Too many of his attempts around the basket previously resulted in a pair of free throws when contact was made, but increased aggressiveness exploding to the basket has led to more plus-ones.

Maybe not enough people are paying attention. But those who play against Zeller know him best, not the media or the fans.

“He’s really tough to play,” said N.C. State’s Richard Howell. “He’s not just long, he’s strong and aggressive.”

UNC teammate and fellow big John Henson has battled Zeller probably more than anyone.

“No, he’s not soft, that is just wrong that some people say that,” he said. “He is strong, bangs, and just look at what he does for us. He’s a great player.”

Zeller doesn’t need anyone else doing his talking, and he truly doesn’t care what the masses think. He’s an honor student, a strong man of faith and has many other interests outside of basketball.

He said last year he’d miss the sport if it was taken away, but he’d still “have a life outside of basketball.”

Among his goals, along with brothers Cody, a freshman at Indiana, and Luke, a former starter at Notre Dame, Tyler wants to run a faith-based basketball camp some day.

The camp for kids through high school age would focus on fundamentals and development but also teach leadership skills with an equal emphasis on faith and people’s roles in the community. They would run an alternative session that would tone down some of the outward Christianity, but it would still include signs on the walls and other messages that might prompt some campers to inquire about faith.

Zeller will have a terrific platform to get that going after he’s taken in the first round of the NBA draft this summer. But before then he has an ACC championship to try and win, and then another NCAA title, which will require toughness. Softness need not apply.

If that happens, Zeller and fellow senior Justin Watts will be the only Tar Heels to have two national title rings as players. And that’s a show topic Zeller might tune into.