Working to Gel

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina leaned on the inside-out combo of Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes to make its Elite 8 run last season, and while that same level of chemistry has not materialized quite yet in 2011-12, there are positive signs pointing in that desired direction.

During the final 10 games of the 2010-11 campaign, Barnes led UNC with 21.5 points per game and Zeller followed closely behind with a 19.2 mark. After failing to combine for 40 points in the first 20 games of the season, that duo averaged 40.7 points during the final four weeks of the season.

Those statistics were most telling when factoring in their early season production – Barnes and Zeller combined to average 25.6 points through the first 19 games.

While the overall point production is significantly improved this season – Barnes is scoring a team-best 17.7 points per game and Zeller is adding 15.7 – the chemistry that allowed the duo to play off one another so well last March has been just out of reach.

"It's still a work in progress," Barnes told reporters on Friday. "You look at the Duke game and he had a big first half and I had a big second half. We're just still trying to have big halves together. Obviously, other people on the team have to score, but that being said, it's still a work on progress…

"You just have to work [at it], because Tyler operates in the low post and I operate better with space, so we're trying to find a happy medium between the two."

UNC's loss to Duke on Feb. 8 provides a good example of the talent level that head coach Roy Williams has at his disposal. Zeller carried the Tar Heels in the first half with 19 points, but once the Blue Devils double- and triple-teamed the seven-footer in the second half, Barnes emerged to score 19 over the final 20 minutes.

But if North Carolina expects to book airfare to New Orleans and battle for the national championship, it can't simply be Zeller stepping up his game when Barnes is struggling, or vice versa. Both players have to create a dangerous scenario for opponents by giving them no options to cheat defensively.

Zeller and Barnes excelling simultaneously would also aid the current bench scoring woes. The Tar Heel reserves are averaging just 7.6 points over the past five games, but that concern was rarely mentioned during UNC's NCAA run last season when the bench averaged 6.0 points per outing in games against Washington, Marquette and Kentucky.

Fortunately for UNC, there is clear evidence that Barnes and Zeller are developing the needed repertoire to match – and possibly exceed – last season's efforts.

The duo combined for 40 or more points just twice in the first 15 games of the season, but has accomplished that feat five times in 11 ACC contests. Barnes has been consistent for most of the schedule, minus a handful of poor shooting nights, but Zeller was unable to carry over his level of play through the offseason.

The senior forward averaged 13.2 points through the first nine games, despite a 27-point effort at UNC Asheville.

"He didn't have the Tyler games that I expected," Williams said.

But the start of ACC play was apparently all Zeller needed to elevate his production. The Washington, Ind. native is averaging 18.1 points in conference play, including five games of 20 points or more.

"Most people's stats go down when you get into the league because the competition is just tougher," Williams said.

The ninth-year UNC head coach pointed to a couple of factors that could be responsible for Zeller's production boost of late.

"One of the things I tell the kids is now you've got to raise your play another level because the competition is better, so your concentration, your preparation, everything has got to be better," Williams said. "That might have had something to do with it or it could be that he's just a plodder. He just keeps going, keeps going, keeps going. He found his rhythm a little bit better and his concentration I do think has gone up."

Barnes is averaging 18.5 points during ACC play, despite suffering an ankle injury at Wake Forest on Jan. 31. The sophomore forward told reporters that he feels about 90 percent and his most noticeable limitation is his lateral quickness.

There is plenty of time to further improve the on-court chemistry with five regular season games and the ACC Tournament remaining. And there is no shortage of confidence that as the Tar Heels approach March Madness, Barnes and Zeller represent an increasingly difficult obstacle for opponents as their play steadily improves and gels together.

"I think when I'm playing well and when Tyler's playing well at the same time, we're virtually unstoppable," Barnes said.

Only time will tell, but last season's Elite 8 run provided a look at the possibilities.

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