Tyler Zeller’s Redemption
There’s likely not a college basketball fan left in the nation that doesn’t know the name “Tyler Zeller” and associate it with a series of mistakes that cost North Carolina a basketball game against archrival Duke.
Some might know that despite late miscues, Zeller kept North Carolina in the game in the first half with his dominant performance (19 points in 17 minutes). Even fewer of those people probably know that he’s been dominant in ACC play, averaging 19.0 points per game and 10.8 rebounds.
And far too few likely know that Zeller is a really great kid who just happened to be the most unfortunate victim of circumstance.
Even an hour after North Carolina’s shocking 85-84 loss on the buzzer-beating three-pointer by Duke’s Austin Rivers that went in over Zeller’s outstretched hand, reporters couldn’t stop buzzing about it excitedly in the morgue-like stunned silence outside of North Carolina’s locker room.
But that buzz quieted quickly when Zeller – who also made 2-of-4 free throws and tipped a Duke basket in by accident – entered the players’ lounge to speak to the media around midnight on Thursday morning.
His eyes were red-rimmed and he did his best to answer questions, but the normally-composed 7-footer was clearly shell-shocked and devastated. After about three minutes, he headed home with his parents, who were in town for the game. He didn’t sleep until about 5:00 AM. “For the most part, stewed over it. … I just kind of sat around and thought about it,” Zeller said. “It was tough to get away from it.”
Zeller has always been accountable, almost to a fault. Even in the 33-point loss at Florida State where he was the only Tar Heel who showed up, he blamed himself. He’s been a part of a 20-17 season as a sophomore and he was just as upset after some of those losses as he was as a junior when the Tar Heels were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by Kentucky.
But this was different.
“I have a tendency to take a lot of losses hard, especially when you miss two free throws that could have won it,” Zeller said Saturday after just a 25-point, nine-rebound performance in a 70-52 win over Virginia. “I tried to deal with it in the best way possible. I didn’t watch TV at all Thursday. I knew that it wouldn’t be positive.”
He smiled wryly at the looks reporters gave him in response, which were confirmation enough that he was right.
He didn’t let on that he knew specifics, but he might have known that he made SportsCenter’s “Not Top 10” plays the night before (he was No. 2) for his accidental tip-in.
And he should be cautious about turning on the television now. Even on the Sportscenter highlights of the Virginia win, a montage of his late-game mistakes against Duke was shown, including the one billionth replay of the Rivers game-winner over his outstretched hand. And a Zeller defensive lapse that led to a Virginia dunk was highlighted before any of his good plays.
Maybe he’s seen the Rivers’ shot in a highlight package, even by accident, and maybe he hasn’t. But Zeller went to class on Thursday, sat in the back corner and sped out as soon as it was over, heading to the Smith Center on his off day for awhile. He said he went back to his room afterwards and “sat there” for the rest of the night. “I didn’t really go in public and just kept pretty quiet,” he said.
This could have become a T.J. Yates situation. The former Tar Heel quarterback struggled as a junior and was booed by Carolina fans when shown in the “I’m a Tar Heel” Rams Club promo video that runs during basketball games. At one point, Yates was there and heard it for himself.
Yates and Zeller are similar, though Yates let his guard down more with the media. Both are accountable, smart, sometimes quick-witted and even charming. Both know their respective games very well and don’t mind talking shop if a reporter demonstrates they know what they’re talking about.
Zeller is always poised when dealing with the media – sometimes too poised. When pressed recently about people calling him “soft”, Zeller insisted he didn’t care what people thought and didn’t even pay attention to it.
That doesn’t make as juicy a story as it would if he had a chip on his shoulder from hearing it on talk radio or reading it online, but Zeller wouldn’t give even the slightest hint verbally that it bothered him. There was just a slight clench in his jaw and a subtle angry flicker in his eye as he talked about it, but journalists have to deal in facts, not reading body language.
While Zeller has never been vilified like Yates was, he has been called “soft” plenty by his own fanbase. His mistakes cause normally rational Carolina fans to hit the back of the chair in front of them and mutter a few choice curse words about Zeller’s supposed Charmin-like nature.
It’s a word that implies a lack of masculinity, a lack of toughness. Maybe it’s because he spent most of his freshman and sophomore seasons injured. Maybe it’s because he’s more of a finesse player who will make post moves on offense and take charges on defense rather than throwing down an animalistic dunk or swatting a shot away (though he does those things, too).
It’s certainly not due to his winning Academic All-ACC honors three straight years now, or his work in the community or his commitment to his faith in God.
Yet it’s thrown around so liberally, even by his own fans, you would think he’s some also-ran player that’s failed to live up to expectations rather than a senior who could have left school early and is doing great things to make the Carolina alumni proud on and off the court.
But things were different after what happened to him against Duke and thankfully, Carolina fans understand that and rallied around him. And when he was introduced in the starting lineup and got the biggest roar, or when his first basket prompted a standing ovation from the Carolina faithful, he noticed.
“I’ve got to thank all the Carolina fans because they’ve been great to me,” Zeller said. They’ve all been very positive. … I walked out for shoot-around before the game and they all cheered. They’ve all been very supportive of me. I know I let them down but at the same time, they’ve helped me and I’ve got to thank them a lot for that.”
T.J. Yates went on to start for the Houston Texans this season when their first and second-strong quarterbacks got injured, and the former Tar Heel even won a playoff game. To see Yates do so well after taking such a beating from his own fans confirms that justice still exists in the universe.
But seeing Tyler Zeller’s red eyes and hearing his still-choked up voice after the Duke game, that didn’t seem like justice. Not for him, and not that way.
Fortunately for Zeller, there’s still time for him to get justice. And his effort against Virginia was a good start.