Despite taking a ton of unofficial visits early in his junior year, it was up for debate if Tyler Zeller would be talented enough to play at the schools he visited. As it turns out, he's more than good enough.
Zeller is candid about his own self doubt. Could he play at the highest level in college? He wasn't sure entering his junior season. It wasn't until this past summer that he realized his own potential.
"No, actually I didn't (know)," Zeller said, regarding forecasting his future success. "My sophomore year I got on an AAU team. Then junior year by the middle of the year I started getting into it a lot more and doing workouts. I had a good year and I felt really confident coming into the summer.
"In the beginning of my summer after sophomore year I wasn't ready to play at that level. I probably had the talent, but I wasn't strong enough to do it. This year I just felt like I was in my body and I was ready to go. I was more agile and I could move a lot better."
Zeller -- Scout.com's No. 16 overall prospect -- not only is good enough to play in the Big Ten or the ACC, he's on the verge of being an instant impact recruit. If you're Indiana, Notre Dame, Purdue or North Carolina, he's a guy you can use immediately – therefore, he's a top priority. Those are Zeller's four finalists. He will visit two each in September and October. For what it's worth, UNC is the first visit and Purdue is the last.
In addition to the upcoming senior year official visits, Zeller contends his junior unofficial excursions were valuable. "It was very beneficial," he said. "When coaches call me I have an idea of what they're saying when they're talking about campus. They might talk about a business school and I've been there. It was very beneficial to see what was there, [discover] how I liked the campus and meet a couple of players."
On one campus – Notre Dame – Zeller knows a certain big man real well. His brother, Luke, opted for the Fighting Irish after becoming the family's first McDonald's All-American and is now a junior on the team. Ironically, the Zeller brothers have never played on the same squad. When Luke was a senior in high school, Tyler manned the freshman squad. He got the late season JV call up but didn't play a minute alongside his older sibling. Now there's a chance it could happen for a season if the Irish win his signature.
"It'd be cool, but it's not a dream," Zeller said. "I would love to play with him, but if it's not the right fit I won't go. I have to look at the school overall."
Of the three in-state schools, Zeller will tell you Purdue's been on him the longest. "They've been with me 2 – 2 1/2 years," Zeller said. Matt Painter has been a staple in front of Zeller, and stacking him on top of last year's haul would make life in West Lafayette quite good for the Boilermaker head coach.
Obviously, Indiana is the program with the biggest local following on the hardwood and Zeller's an Indiana kid. He's getting a sense for the size of Hoosier Nation under Kelvin Sampson. "It's definitely coming back from where it was when Luke went through (the process)," Zeller said. "There's a little bit of a pull. Around here everyone is split between IU and Purdue in Washington."
Three choices in his own backyard and Zeller hasn't figured out how he'll separate them. "I'm not real sure yet," he said. "I'm working on it. Indiana's a great school. All three have great coaches. Purdue's a great school and so is Notre Dame.
"I've got to see how I get along with the guys and see how I fit in. If you don't fit in you won't play to your potential. I want to scrimmage with them, see where I fit and see what my role will be. Hopefully, I get a feeling that it's the right school for me."
North Carolina, by geography alone, stands out from the other three choices. The Tar Heels haven't been on Zeller as long as the others but he did visit the Tar Heels during his junior year unofficial visit spree and was on campus again this past May for the Tournament of Champions.
"What happened is I went down there last fall," Zeller said. "I wasn't real good back then. They didn't have scholarships. They kept talking to me every other month. They didn't have a scholarship this spring but said there was a chance of someone going pro. Brandan Wright went and they had one and offered it to me."
UNC's geography has its pluses and minuses. "I love the beach," Zeller said. "If I went (to UNC) I'd be at the beach in the offseason. Then again, it's farther away and that's a disadvantage. But once you get there you live there; that's your home and you come back twice a year. You don't go home every weekend if you're an athlete."
Zeller is firmly committed to the process of visiting the schools. Don't expect him to take a trip and make a hasty decision. Since his brother went through the process he's got a great window into how to go about a decision.
We quizzed him: if he had to make a decision right now, could he?
"I don't try to think of them evenly but the more I think about it I contradict everything I say," Zeller replied. "For the most part I try to separate them. If I could commit right now I'd love to but I can't get it down that far right now."
The beauty is Zeller doesn't need to choose now. He's looking forward to enjoying the final leg of the process. After all, he's come a long way and he's earned the right to enjoy the journey.
Zeller On Running The Floor
There isn't another big man in the Class of 2008 that changes ends and runs the floor with the intensity or intent of Zeller. Talented with his touch around the basket and to mid-range, neither is his calling card. From the spring through the summer it was Zeller's ability to beat people down the floor that set him apart from his peers.
"I had an AAU coach way back when every time I went to practice we did these transition drills," Zeller told Scout.com. "He would make fun of me that I never did it. As soon as I left that team I started seeing what he meant. He saw me and asked me why I didn't do that for him but in the end he did teach me stuff like that."
Zeller notices when his opponent's labor down the floor and it can be inspiring. "It's always exciting to see the guy huffing and puffing. Then the coach yells at him and they put in someone else and you take off and get another lay up. It's the easiest way to score, that's how I look at it."