Zeller’s decision pays off with Final Four run
Yet Zeller is back after sitting out three long months, a choice that amounted to burning a year of eligibility for just a handful of guaranteed games. He knows this might be his best chance to be part of title-winning team, and that decision seems like a wise one now that the Tar Heels have made it back to the Final Four.
“I’ve always felt good about it,” Zeller said Tuesday. “But now it’s kind of starting to pay off because I do get to play in the Final Four now and I do get to be a part of it more so than I would have just being a redshirt. ... I’m trying to help the guys out this year and get prepared for next year.”
At first glance, Zeller’s return is seemingly little more than a luxury for the Tar Heels (32-4) heading into Saturday’s national semifinal against Villanova in Detroit. He is fourth on the depth chart behind Tyler Hansbrough, fellow starter Deon Thompson and 6-foot-10 freshman Ed Davis, and hasn’t played more than 13 minutes in an NCAA tournament game so far.
But Zeller proved valuable against Oklahoma in last weekend’s South Regional championship game, where he was one of three players who guarded All-American Blake Griffin after Hansbrough picked up two early fouls. Zeller’s stats were modest—two points, two rebounds in six minutes—but it was still key in the overall defensive effort on Griffin in the 72-60 win.
The Tar Heels hope that experience helps in Detroit and beyond.
“Deep down, I wish I could give him more minutes right now,” coach Roy Williams said. “But we talked about it (when he came back) and said it’s got to be team first. I think it’s been a big benefit for our team and I think the huge benefit for him will come later, particularly next year because he’s been through it.”
It’s a smaller role than Zeller probably envisioned after the first game of his college career, when the McDonald’s All-American started in place of an injured Hansbrough and scored 18 points against Penn in the season opener. He seemed a perfect fit for North Carolina’s fast-paced offense with his lanky frame, ability to run and soft jumper.
Zeller started again three days later against Kentucky, but was injured when he was knocked to the ground after taking a hard foul in the final minutes. The next day, the school said Zeller had surgery to repair fractures in two places, a recovery that normally takes 12 to 16 weeks and would likely keep him out for the year.
Within a few weeks, Zeller started working out with weights again, doing everything from squats to bench presses in which he had a dumbbell in his right hand and pretended to have one in his left. He told himself there was always a chance he could come back, though he admitted, “It never really seemed realistic.”
But things changed after the team announced in early February that senior swingman Marcus Ginyard decided to redshirt after a slow recovery from preseason foot surgery, while reserve guard Will Graves was suspended for the season for an unspecified violation of team policy. Soon, Williams and Zeller were talking with his parents about whether it would be worth returning late in the season.
After having his parents and Williams say it was his decision, Zeller decided he wanted to help his teammates.
“They’ve helped me tremendously all the way through,” Zeller said. “As soon as I got here, they got me acquainted to college. Even before I got hurt they were helping me out through practice. Everybody on this team has been hurt at some point in time, so they all know what it’s like and they all helped me out and encouraged me through that.”
Zeller returned against rival North Carolina State on Feb. 18, giving him just five regular-season games.
“It definitely shows a lot about his character,” Thompson said. “He just wanted to be here for us and help us. But I think it’s going to help him as well. He’s playing in a Final Four now. That’s good to have under your belt. Honestly, in my opinion, I don’t see him being here all four years and needing that year back. He’s that good.”
Right now, however, Zeller doesn’t have to be great with all the veteran talent around him. He just needs to be a small piece to the pursuit.
“I always knew this team was capable of getting there, but I didn’t know if I was ever going to be a part of it,” he said. “It was one of those things it all worked out and I’ve got to thank God for it every day because it all worked out so well.”