Thursday, December 1, 2011

For the Love of God, Get Tyler Zeller the Ball

Roy Williams is an excellent basketball coach and his North Carolina Tar Heels are a very good basketball team. However, there is one thing that has been bothering me for quite some time when it comes to Roy and his UNC teams, and really it's about coaching.

Since returning to his alma mater in 2003, Williams has certainly done a masterful job, winning two national championships and maintaining the historic excellence Dean Smith created. However, there are spells where Roy's teams have bafflingly and inexcusably ignored their best, most efficient interior players — Tyler Hansbrough excluded.

For instance, take Williams' first national championship team from 2005, a team that included Jawad Williams, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams and Sean May. We all remember the controversial one-point Sweet 16 victory over Villanova in the NCAA Tournament and the infamous phantom traveling call on Allen Ray.

What everyone seems to forget is that that game should have never been that close to begin with. Don't get me wrong, Villanova played incredibly well with an awesomely talented team that included Ray, Randy Foye, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry, and there was no way they were going to make things easy for the Tar Heels. However, if you recall, Sean May was literally dominating inside, scoring every time he touched the ball on the extremely undersized Wildcats. No one on Nova could stop him — yet May only managed to hoist 9 shots despite making six of them, hauling in 10 boards and completely abusing Villanova inside.

The entire game, I was screaming at Felton and Roy Williams to demand May get a touch inside on every position, and each time my pleas went unanswered. As a result, Villanova played their tremendous perimeter defense and almost pulled off the upset. In that game, had Roy simply demanded his players to feed May the ball, that game most likely would not have been as close as it was, seeing as Nova had absolutely no answer inside for May. But Williams didn't, and it nearly cost his talented team the national championship it ultimately won.

Fast-forward to last season. All the hype that surrounded the Tar Heels was in large part due to the highly touted freshman Harrison Barnes, a freshman so highly regarded that he was the first-ever to be named Preseason All-American. As we know, it took Barnes a while to fulfill that promise, but he did eventual turn into the player people expected. However, as the Tar Heels had a bit of a roller-coaster season, the one steady hand had been Tyler Zeller.

Plain and simple, Zeller has been without question UNC's most efficient player, if not its best, for the past few years. As great as Barnes is, no one has been more reliable on a nightly basis than Zeller. If you've watched North Carolina the past few seasons, you know that if Zeller has a big game, the Tar Heels win.

And yet, there were stretches of games where Zeller would be ignored for large portions in the first half of last season. It wasn't until Kendall Marshall took over at point that Zeller really began to get the ball consistently, and uncoincidentally, that's when UNC took off.

I was hopeful that the late-season surge from last year would make Roy Williams and the Tar Heels realize that Tyler Zeller has to get more touches more consistently for this team to realize its full potential — much like everything ran through Tyler Hansbrough during his days in Chapel Hill. Yet in this early season, Roy's blind eye toward demanding his players to feed his talented, efficient center has already cost the preseason No. 1 team to lose embarrassingly to UNLV and allowed Wisconsin to keep the game close throughout last night.

In the 90-80 loss to the Runnin' Rebels, Zeller took just six shots. And while he only made one of them, you know that low percentage wouldn't last. Zeller is a career 52 percent shooter from the field and coming off a career-best season of 54.7. The man knows how to score and score efficiently. Yet in that loss, he was essentially ignored.

And last night, as Wisconsin did an incredibly effective job of slowing down the pace and making the Tar Heels play Badger basketball, Zeller was largely ignored again. He only had five field goal attempts — though he did get to line six times — despite this being a half-court game for the most part. That makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever, and it really comes down to coaching.

I know Roy likes to push the pace and have his team get as many offensive possessions as possible. He likes to score quickly and make it a track meet. But when the opposition effectively slows the pace and your squad isn't the best shooting bunch, you go down low to your most reliable player. That guy is Zeller. The game flow dictated him getting a lot of shots, yet it didn't happen. And that's why Wisconsin was able to keep it close and actually take a second-half lead before Harrison Barnes took over with some remarkable shot-making and Dexter Strickland shut down Jordan Taylor with tremendous defense.

But like in that Sweet 16 game in 2005, last night's contest should not have come down to that, just as the loss to UNLV probably should have never happened. Those games were the pressure-cookers they were because Williams and his Tar Heels ignored their efficient big men who very rarely could be stopped.

It is his one coaching flaw that I have noticed over the years, but a big one. I'll concede that at a school with so much talent, it can be difficult finding enough shots for all the McDonald's All-Americans on the roster. But it's the job of the coach to put his team in the best position to succeed. For the most part, Roy Williams does that. But when his teams ignore their big men, especially when those guys are as good as Sean May and Tyler Zeller, he's not doing his job.

If North Carolina wants to hoist its third national championship banner under Roy Williams this season, they have to stop ignoring their big man and — for the love of god — get Tyler Zeller the damn ball.

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