Caulton Tudor • staff columnist
There’s a secret chamber inside the hearts of North Carolina basketball fans that few players get to visit, much less reside in perpetual appreciation.
Tyler Hansbrough has a condo there.
So do Lennie Rosenbluth, Charles Scott, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Michael Jordan and a precious few others.
Tyler Zeller isn’t in there yet. He may not make it, either.
But if the Tar Heels (30-5) can beat Creighton (29-5) Sunday and eventually win the NCAA championship, Zeller’s athletic and academic accomplishments may never be duplicated by a Carolina player.
As an awkward, oft injured freshman in 2009, Zeller and classmate Justin Watts each got to play an uneventful single minute in the NCAA title win over Michigan State in Detroit.
If Zeller departs with two National Championship rings, that should serve as a passport to a unique perch in the school’s hoops hierarchy.
Zeller has given that possibility some thought, albeit passing thought.
“I guess it’s just natural that you think some about your legacy,” Zeller said this week. “I don’t know what mine is or will be, but that’s not really important in a way. Not compared to the feeling we would have if we can win it all.
“In 2009, it was sort of a blur to me. I was so young and that team had really great leadership that I kind of just stood around in awe. When I was hurt (broken wrist) so much that season, I was able to do a lot of watching and learning from Tyler and those guys. They were so talented it was almost unreal, but the thing that made them so great was they never stopped working. I hope we can match that.”
By UNC’s standard for ultimate aristocracy, Zeller would be the strangest possible fit.
Although he scored 18 points against Penn in his debut _ Hansbrough was sidelined by a shin injury _ Zeller didn’t arrive as a can’t-miss star. It wasn’t until his junior season that he got to start on a consistent basis.
“Coach (Roy Williams) talks to us a lot about Tyler and what he’s turned out to do,” freshman big man James Michael McAdoo said Saturday. “I remember one time Coach asked us if we knew what Tyler’s stats were his first year. I think it was like maybe two points and one rebound a game.
“That’s what makes Tyler’s a role model for all of us _ his work ethic.”
When Zeller suffered a foot fracture midway through his sophomore season, only his most optimistic fans could have predicted that two years later he would be the best player in the ACC, certain to go fairly high in the NBA Draft and in position to be on another NCAA title team.
“There were some rough periods, but nothing a lot of other people haven been through, Zeller said Saturday.
“I’m a person of faith. I knew God had a reason for everything. I didn’t doubt that at all. I knew I had to stay on track and keep working to get well and then get better.”
From the end of that sophomore through Carolina’s 77-58 NCAA win over Vermont on Friday, Zeller probably “got better” and in a more dramatic fashion than any player in UNC history.
And as usual Zeller’s stats _ roughly 17 points and 10 rebounds per game _ aren’t a completely accurate reflection of his value to the team.
“He’s the backbone of this team,” sophomore playmaker Kendall Marshall said. “He’s the anchor.”
When Zeller decided after last season to return to school even though he might have been a first-round pick, Williams wasn’t surprised.
“He’s enjoying college life,” Williams said. “Z didn’t think the NBA would go away. It’s been a thrill to coach him. It really has been a thrill and an honor.”
In the Greenboro Coliseum locker room before Saturday’s practice, Zeller dealt with a group of reporters while casually finding a way to glance at television coverage of Syracuse’s win over Kansas State.
Occasionally, he would touch the back of his head.
No one really noticed. McAdoo, sitting a few seats over, did.
“Tyler’s humble,” McAdoo said. “Yesterday, he had to get stitches in his head but you’d never even known about it unless you just happened to ask him.
“That’s how he is. He’s got the craziest game face I’ve ever seen. He’s got this crazy little smile even when he’s getting beat up and hacked, which is just about every game.”
When Duke lost on Friday to Lehigh, Blue Devil senior Miles Plumlee made an interesting statement.
“People remember you for how you leave,” Plumlee said.
How Zeller leaves could be extraordinary _ even in a program that has done much to help define “extraordinary” in college basketball for the past 60 or so years.