Tyler Zeller's first two seasons at North Carolina were a study in frustration.
Zeller was limited to 15 games as a freshman in 2008-09 during North Carolina's national championship season, sitting out 23 games because of a broken wrist. Last season, the 7'0" center suffered a stress fracture in his foot that caused him to miss 10 of 37 games in a year that ended with the disappointment of losing to Dayton in the NIT championship game.
North Carolina is going to need Zeller to be healthy this upcoming season. He and sophomore center John Henson are the only big men on the Tar Heels' roster with any college experience after twins David and Travis Wear decided to transfer to UCLA.
"John and I just need to work harder now, and we use it as motivation," Zeller told the Raleigh News & Observer. "It is great, because no one can come in to back us up now ... so we're going to play a lot. But it's terrible, because if you get in foul trouble, you don't have backups. You play bad, you don't have anyone to come in and help us out. So John and I know that we have to be even more focused."
Zeller averaged 9.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 0.2 assists and 17.4 minutes a game last season while Henson had a 5.7/4.4/0.9/15.9 line as a freshman. Zeller realizes he has gotten the label of being injury prone but insists it does not bother him.
"I know what I can't do is worry about getting injured again," Zeller said. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. I think if you worry about it, you're more prone to get hurt."
Zeller figures to move into a lineup that includes only two returning starters in senior forward Will Graves and junior guard Larry Drew II. North Carolina will get a jump on next season this week when it takes a trip to the Bahamas to play a pair of games in Nassau. Zeller believes it will be a good experience for an inexperienced team.
"When you're playing against teammates, they know what you're good at and what you're bad at," Zeller said. "When you go against someone different, they don't have a big scouting report on you and you don't have a big scouting report on them. It gives you a different look on offense and defense and a different look to work on."
Zeller also hopes it is the start of a better season than last winter.
"Last year, it left a bitter taste in our mouth," he said. "We want to come out and prove that we are national contenders, and we are an NCAA-quality team again."
Self Relies on his Assistants for Scouting
Kansas' Bill Self is one of the top coaches in the nation. He led the Jayhawks to the national championship in 2008 and has won six straight Big 12 regular-season titles.
Surprisingly, however, Self told the Lawrence World Journal that he does not consider himself a good talent evaluator. In fact, he readily admits that he relies heavily on assistant coach Danny Manning, Joe Dooley and Kurtis Townsend in that area.
ďYou walk into the gym and see the best player in the gym, itís not hard to tell that," Self said. "Itís watching the third- or fourth-best player on a team who hasnít developed yet--where you project him, learn the background (of player). Is he projected to grow? How explosive is he? Can he fit in? The best recruiters in the business from an evaluation standpoint are at the mid-majors. They do a great job evaluating their talent level when they (players) are 16, 17 and projecting them out to when they are age 21.
"At Kansas, we donít get the opportunity to do that. The majority of kids we recruit want to be in school goal-wise, one, two, three years. Very rarely do the best of the best stay all four years in college basketball the way the landscape is. The real talent of recruiting is being able to dig those guys out who at age 21, 22 can whip those kids who are 18. The people getting that done are the ones having success.Ē
Butler Headlines Diamond Head Field
Butler, the surprise national runner-up last season, will take part in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu from Dec. 22-25. The Bulldogs will play Utah in the first round of the eight-team event.
The other first-round matchups are Baylor-San Diego, Florida State-Hawaii and Mississippi State-Washington State.
Michigan State, which also made the Final Four last season, is too headed to Hawaii. The Spartans will headline the Maui Classic at Lahaina from Nov. 22-24 and open against host Chaminade. Connecticut-Wichita State, Kentucky-Oklahoma and Virginia-Washington are the other first-round pairings.
Georgia Tech, Michigan, Syracuse and UTEP will participate in the Legends Classic on Nov. 26-27 at Atlantic City. The other teams in the 12-team field that won't participate in the finals at Boardwalk Hall but are also assured of four games each are Albany, Bowling Green, Detroit, Gardner-Webb, Mercer, Niagara, Western Carolina and William & Mary.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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