But for a team that relies on a defender and shot-blocker as its No. 3 scorer, the consistent production was lacking for both players through the first 19 games of the season. Through the Miami victory in Coral Gables on Jan. 26, Zeller averaged 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds and Barnes added 11.8 points and 5.2 rebounds.
While Zeller was scoring 27 points against Kentucky, Barnes only managed 12 against the Wildcats. When Barnes dropped 19 on Long Beach State, Zeller scored 10. North Carolina got solid combined efforts against UNC Asheville (36 pts) and Texas (30), but poor outings against Rutgers (17) and Virginia (21).
And then two things happened that spurred an offensive revolution – Barnes and Zeller were beginning to mature as players just as Larry Drew was packing his bags for L.A. Add in a rookie point guard with magician-like passing skills and the shackles dissolved away.
Over the past 17 games, Zeller is scoring 15.9 points per game while Barnes has upped his average to 16.5 points per contest. And the numbers only improve as you inch closer to the present – slice the sample size to the past eight games and you find that Barnes is averaging 22.1 points per game and Zeller is just behind with an 18.0 mark.
The Tar Heel tandem didn't combine for 40 points once in the first 20 games of the season and now they're averaging 42 over the past four weeks.
In the first 27 games, Barnes broke the 20-point barrier three times while Zeller surpassed it four times, although never at the same time. Over the past eight games, they've scored 20 points or more in the same game on three different occasions with seven 20-plus outings between them.
Part of the reasoning behind this offensive explosion can be found in chemistry. Instead of battling against each other for scoring opportunities, Barnes and Zeller are now working together to capitalize on what opposing defenses are giving them.
"I understand where Tyler wants the ball and how to get him more involved, as well as keeping up my own offensive production," Barnes told reporters at the Prudential Center on Thursday. "So I think we're both on the same page and I think it helps our team so much more rather than one person having a big game and the other person struggling."
The statistics back up Barnes's beliefs. North Carolina averaged 77.0 points through the first 27 games on the schedule, but that average has increased to 79.8 over the last eight.
Kendall Marshall had a hard time explaining why Barnes and Zeller had been able to elevate their play.
"I wish I knew," Marshall said. "We want to keep that going. It's great for us. It makes us very hard to guard and hard to beat when you have multiple players playing well. I think we have a lot of very good players and we're a great team. It's just a matter of who comes to play on which day. And when you have – like against Long Island – we had three players that scored  and above, it's tough to beat us."
But while Marshall has been known to be overly modest in taking credit for North Carolina's late season run, his play cannot be overvalued in maximizing his teammates' scoring opportunities. After his record setting performance against Florida State with 16 assists on Feb. 6, the freshman averaged 5.8 assists over his next five games. Since that time Marshall has dished out 9.5 assists per contest (76 in his last eight games).
Barnes has no qualms in giving Marshall his due.
"He obviously gets the ball to Tyler a lot more than I do because I have a scorer's mentality, but any time he can just distribute there and distribute to me, I think it allows us to be more cohesive of a unit," Barnes said.
North Carolina has won three games in 2011 on dramatic clutch shots – two by Barnes and one by Zeller. But without Marshall leading Barnes to the right wing on a gutsy pass at Miami, the preseason All-American never would have gotten a clean look. And if it wasn't for Marshall penetrating the lane and drawing Zeller's man as the clock raced towards triple zeros against Miami, the 7-footer never would have gotten a wide open lay-up to pull off the improbable comeback over the Hurricanes.
Barnes alone could not have changed North Carolina's offensive production. The same goes for Zeller and Marshall. It's taken a collective effort to make everyone's game that much better. Even John Henson has gotten into the act by averaging 14.4 points over his last eight games.
"Kendall does a great job of facilitating the ball to everybody and then when you get John putting up 20 points also like we did against Long Island, I think we can be very difficult to stop," Zeller said. "I think some of it also is Harrison and I getting used to each other. We know where we want the ball and I can give him space when he needs it."
North Carolina won the ACC regular season championship by leaning heavily on its defensive effort. Now the Tar Heels have the option of relying on a lethal inside-outside game to help them reach their fourth Elite Eight in five years.