Over the past two games, North Carolina sophomore Tyler Zeller has scored 30 points, recorded his first double-double, and sealed a first-round NIT victory with a steal-and-dunk in the final minute.
It makes you wonder what might have been - for both Zeller and the fourth-seeded Tar Heels, as they prepare to play at No. 1 seed Mississippi State in the second round today - had the 7-footer not missed ten ACC games with a stress fracture in his right foot.
Although he prefers not to wonder "what if?"
"I never really got into questioning all of that, because it's what happens," said Zeller, who also missed 13 games his freshman season with a broken left wrist.
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North Carolina (17-16) was already starting to experience the problems that led to its freefall - inconsistent effort, poor outside shooting, silly turnovers, sporadic defense - when Zeller started feeling pain in his foot in early January, and sat out the 19-point loss at Clemson as a precaution. It wasn't long until the stress fracture was diagnosed, and Zeller was relegated to the bench and the weight room.
Without him, the squad's problems continued to snowball. With such a limited rotation at guard, coach Roy Williams was counting on depth in the frontcourt to be the team's strength. Then Zeller, the top tall back-up and the team's fourth-leading scorer at the time, got hurt. Less than a month later, starting forward Ed Davis broke his wrist, and joined Zeller on the bench. Since then, reserve forward David Wear has undergone hip surgery, sidelining him, too.
While Zeller was out, UNC went 2-8 against ACC foes. Watching it, he said, "you feel like you kind of let your team down by being hurt, but at the same time you can't change it. So I just used it as motivation to lift weights harder, and get back quicker."
He gained back the five pounds he had lost during the season, weighing 240 when he returned at Boston College on Feb. 20. His timing, he said, still isn't back to 100 percent, but in his last seven games, he's averaged 9.4 points and 4.9 rebounds, and the Tar Heels have gone 3-4.
Today the Heels face the Bulldogs (24-11), who just missed making the NCAA tournament/ They are a balanced team that likes to barrage opponents with 3-pointers - and that also boasts the NCAA's all-time leading shot blocker in 6-9 senior Jarvis Varnado (13.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4.7 bpg)
Javier Serna contributed to this story.