Zeller must stay healthy for Tar Heels
Tyler Zeller can recite the numbers off the top of his head.
That’s what North Carolina’s record was last season while the Tar Heels’ big man was on the mend with a stress fracture.
Most guys would joke about it with their teammates and the level of importance they mean for their team.
Maybe even taunt his teammates.
Not Zeller — and certainly not after what he and his teammates had to endure last season when the Tar Heels floundered their way to the NIT.
“We don’t joke about last year,” Zeller said. “Not at all.”
Zeller was one of 20 college players invited to work out against the USA Basketball group that is vying to be on the World Championship squad.
“It’s great playing against these guys,” Zeller said. “This is the best of the best and it’s a great opportunity.”
It’s the first step for Zeller in finally beginning to realize the potential that many had projected of him when he signed with UNC.
The issue for the athletic 7-footer hasn’t necessarily been a lack of production. Zeller averaged 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds as a sophomore last season while playing a modest 17.4 minutes per game.
It’s been health.
Zeller started the first two games of his career and put up 18 points against Penn before suffering a broken wrist that put him on the shelf for more than three months.
A year ago, Zeller was forced to sit 11 games in the middle of the year with the stress fracture.
He knows what people are saying now.
He can’t make it through an entire season. They joke maybe he ought to play in a bubble.
“I’m hearing it a million times,” he said. “The thing is I’ve never been injured before these last two years.”
Roy Williams and the Tar Heels could withstand the loss of Zeller two years ago when he was a role guy on a team that won the national title. He would have made a difference a year ago, as the record with and without Zeller illustrates, but the Tar Heels still had too many holes to fill.
This year, Zeller’s presence has become crucial.
“We need him to become a big-time player,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
After the early departure of Ed Davis, the graduation of Deon Thompson and the Wear Twins opting to transfer back home after just one season, Williams will have no choice but to feed extended minutes to both Zeller and sophomore John Henson.
Zeller’s history of injuries and Henson’s rail-thin body have North Carolina fans and even the staff concerned whether they can withstand the entire season.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, they were recently able to add Alabama’s big, strong 6-foot-9, 245-pounder Justin Knox with a one-year transfer.
“We went from the deepest frontcourt in the country to the thinnest,” Williams half-joked.
That’ll put even more pressure on Zeller, who is still unable to get a firm grasp of exactly what went wrong last season in Chapel Hill.
“To tell you the truth, we don’t know,” Zeller said. “There were one or two things wrong, and we’ve got to fix them. We started to figure it out in the NIT and play better, and hopefully this year that will continue.”
The addition of highly touted recruit Harrison Barnes, arguably the most notable in the Roy Williams Era, should help alleviate a few of the issues that plagued North Carolina throughout last season.
He will give the Tar Heels both a perimeter threat and also a go-to guy — two glaring deficiencies from a year ago.
However, Zeller isn’t quite ready to anoint Barnes as the savior.
“I think it’s got to be everybody,” he said. “He is very good, but I don’t think he can do it by himself. We’ve got to play as a team.”
And Zeller needs to remain on the court.