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Feb. 23, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – When a basketball team is plagued by inconsistency from its perimeter game, it better have something it can count on inside.
And North Carolina has gotten exactly that kind of play from Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
The two tall post players – Zeller is a 7-footer and Henson is 6-10 – have delivered the kind of game-in, game-out performances that have helped lift the Tar Heels to records of 10-2 in ACC play and 20-6 overall.
In their 12 league games, the two have combined to average 27 points and 16.4 rebounds, giving the Tar Heels the kind of stability they need to counter their on-again, off-again outside shooting.
Coach Roy Williams called Zeller his most consistent player.
“He’s been a leader on and off the court,” Williams said. “He’s been that little security blanket that every team needs that you feel like you’re going to get a good effort from him every night.
“He’s really having a very solid, very consistent year and it’s been extremely important to our team, to say the least.”
Zeller runs the floor well and has a nice outside touch, but his biggest value is posting up and scoring inside, which he can do with either hand. And he has played this season without incurring a major injury.
“It means I don’t have to sit on the sidelines in a suit,” Zeller responded when asked about his good health.
It’s not as if Zeller’s first two seasons were marked by a series of muscle pulls or sprained joints or any of a number of other nuisances that can nag a player. He broke his left wrist in his freshman season when he was fouled on a breakaway dunk and missed 23 games. He missed 10 games in his sophomore year because of a stress fracture in his right foot. In each case he came back to play late in the season.
“We never thought he was injury-prone,” Williams said. “It’s just some things happened. I know that he worked extremely hard in the offseason on his stretching, his flexibility, on his body. He’s a very dedicated young man when it comes to doing the right things.
“We hoped, had dreams for big things from him. I try to stay away from expectations, even myself, much less from other people. He has done really a nice job for us and we hope it continues. A lot of it is directly related to how much work he puts in during the off season.”
Williams said Zeller’s biggest improvement this season has been on the defensive end.
“He was never really bad defensively, but he’s really doing some nice things defensively,” the coach said. “And he’s been very consistent with his defensive effort and his execution of what we want to do.”
Something that’s new for Zeller this season has been adjusting to constant double-teams.
“The doubles have come from every possible angle,” he said. “The challenge is always figuring out where it’s going to come from, how to react, who’s going to be open. So if it comes from the weak side you’ve got to know where the weak side shooter is. A lot of that is knowing where your teammates are going to be and trusting they will be in the spot where you think they will be.”
While Zeller has answered the questions about what he could deliver during a full season, Henson has turned aside any doubts about his durability. While he displayed an explosive jumping ability during his freshman season, some wondered how effective his reed-thin frame would be when he played starter’s minutes.
No problem. Henson has increased his minutes from 15.7 as a freshman to 24.6 as a sophomore and become an even better player. He’s heavier and stronger now, at 210 pounds, with no loss of quickness off his feet. He can score in transition, finish around the rim and clean up a mess inside by scoring on an offensive rebound.
Henson goes after the ball with such a hunger that he won’t even let his teammates get in the way.
“I always tease him that he steals my rebounds,” Zeller said. “I’ll think I have it and he’ll come in and grab it. It’s one of those things that he’s such a great rebounder that he creates a lot of fast-break opportunities.”
And if Zeller has become Williams’ security blanket, Henson serves the same function with his teammates because of his knack for blocking shots. Zeller explained that while Tar Heel defenders don’t purposely let players drive by them, they try to make the shots challenging because they know Henson is lurking to make them even more difficult.
Henson averages 3.1 blocked shots in ACC games, almost a block per game better than anyone else in the conference. It’s something opposing coaches must factor into their game plans.
“He can impact (the game) from the defensive end as well as anyone in the country with his shot-blocking ability, his intimidation down there,” said NC State coach Sidney Lowe. “Then he can affect it by running the floor offensively because he gets down the floor.
“If you want to beat them, you have to be smart and you have to play the right way. That means that you have to be able to attack him, and you can't shoot over him.”
Lowe’s Wolfpack will try to handle Henson tonight when the teams play in Raleigh. In the first meeting this season, Henson recorded 16 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks in UNC’s 84-64 win.
There’s no good way to avoid a shot-blocker, Lowe explained.
“You have more success if you try to go right at them and force them to make a great play and maybe you get a foul,” he said. “But at the same time I think we have to be smart, too, that if it’s not there, don’t force it.”
The basis of being a successful shot-blocker is the willingness to do it.
“He has incredible length, he studies it, he likes to block shots so he’s willing to bid on a lot of shots,” Williams said. “Our defensive system tries to get him to block shots. He does see the man and see the ball pretty well; he can come over and help out.
“He’s one of the few guys that can really block a shot of the guy he’s guarding. A lot of shot-blockers are only good shot-blockers when they’re in the help position, but John is so big and long that he really makes life tough for the guy he’s guarding as well.
“So he has the desire and he has some unique gifts and we encourage it and he really does a nice job.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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