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The Daily Tar Heel

After injuries, Zeller ready for larger role

Sophomore bulked up in off-season

Sophomore big man Tyler Zeller is looking to prove he is fully recovered his wrist injury. DTH File/Colleen Cook
Sophomore big man Tyler Zeller is looking to prove he is fully recovered his wrist injury. DTH File/Colleen Cook

Even six months removed from North Carolina’s final game of 2009, center Tyler Zeller is still having trouble adjusting to life without one of last year’s departed stars.

Well, not quite that player in particular, just his dominating popularity.

Namely, Zeller’s still unfamiliar with responding to something that seems like second nature to just about everyone — his first name.

“It just happened today. Somebody yelled ‘Tyler,’ and I didn’t look for a second. And I’m like, ‘Dang, that’s me,’” Zeller said.

It’s easy to forgive him for his deference to that other Tyler.

After all, Tyler Hansbrough left North Carolina as one of the greats in program and college basketball history, ranking first in the UNC record books in points, rebounds and free throws. That’s not to mention his national player of the year accolades as a junior, or his four first-team All-ACC selections.

And for an encore in his senior season, Hansbrough cemented his legend by capturing the Tar Heels’ fifth NCAA title.

Zeller, meanwhile, hasn’t proved much of anything just yet.

He broke his left wrist in UNC’s game against Kentucky in November, costing him most of his freshman season. He didn’t return until late February in a game against N.C. State.

And even after he came back, Zeller never seemed to get comfortable in the offense the rest of the way, and he played only a minor role in UNC’s championship run.

Zeller averaged just 3.1 points and two rebounds per game in limited minutes.

“Going back to last year, it was a great experience, and I learned a lot. But I never felt in the flow of the game,” Zeller said. “When I did, it was kind of one of those things that I would get in the flow for a little bit and then I’d get out of it.”

But with a full offseason of pickup games in Chapel Hill, Zeller said, he feels much more integrated within the team’s framework, and he’s comfortable again on the court.

UNC’s other big bodies down low have noticed the change.

He received praise from Sean May, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis for his work in the offseason. They also talked about his threat in the Tar Heels’ up-tempo offense.

“I think people just got a little glimpse about how good he really is,” Thompson said. “He’s really talented, being seven-foot and to be able to run the floor and be able to score as quick as he does with jump hooks.”

Davis said that Zeller’s more than back to where he was before the injury and that his frontcourt partner should be able to contribute significantly to the offense.

“He’s gotten much better since the first day,” Davis said. “He got that much better at everything. His shots are getting better and his explosiveness is getting better.”

But Zeller worked on more than just honing his basketball skills in the time he had away from organized team activities. Weight gain was also a priority for the 2008 Mr. Basketball out of Indiana, who weighed just 212 pounds when he arrived on campus.

After a full year of tutelage from UNC’s strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian, Zeller’s build is up to a muscular 241, more befitting of his 7-0 frame.

That weight gain should pay dividends establishing his position against some of the talented post players in the ACC, such as Clemson’s Trevor Booker or Wake Forest’s Al-Farouq Aminu.

Zeller admitted he was pushed around last season when going for rebounds but added that he feels much stronger on the court now.

But defense isn’t the only place Zeller’s extra muscle should help.

“It’s going to help him be able to hold guys off in the post,” Thompson said. “Seal guys off, get deeper post position.”

But as for being the “other” Tyler, Zeller’s not sweating it.

Besides, he’s already used to being the “other” somebody — the other Zeller.

“I’ve always been compared to my older brother, so I’ve just kind of always been used to it,” Zeller said. “It means something to me, but at the same time I’m also my own person.”

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