The Case for ACC POY

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- It's been a couple of busy weeks for Tyler Zeller. First came his recognition as the Academic All-America of the Year. Next up is Senior Night on Wednesday, followed by Saturday's rematch with rival Duke in what could secure Zeller's bid for ACC Player of the Year honors.

Not that Zeller (15.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg) is stressing over his prospects to win the ACC's top individual honor. In fact, the Washington, Ind. native seemed unaware that the award will likely come down to him and Virginia's Mike Scott.

Zeller's focus is on winning the ACC regular season championship with a pair of victories this week before shifting to ACC and NCAA Tournaments in the coming weeks.

"If I won it, it would be a great award, don't get me wrong," Zeller said on Tuesday. "But that's an individual award, so it's right at the bottom of the list because it's is a team sport. If I go out and score 30 points, great. But if I go out and score 10 points and we win, that's great, too. I'm just trying to win games and if it comes out that I win it, that would be incredible and I'd love it, but you have to focus on the team before you focus on yourself."

But while Zeller's attention may be focused elsewhere, his statistics and play are making his ACC POY case for him.

"He's just having a phenomenal year for us and he's having the kind of year that puts him in the discussion for those types of awards," UNC coach Roy Williams said last week. "For us, he's just been the rock that's been there most every night. He's been the most consistent, and he's been the most consistent at a very high level."

During the first 15 non-conference games of the season, Zeller averaged 13.9 points on 52.4 percent shooting, 8.9 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. Williams was honest in his assessment of Zeller's early-season play several weeks ago, saying, "He didn't have the Tyler games that I expected."

But once ACC play started on Jan. 7, the senior forward turned the knob several notches in the right direction. In 14 ACC games, Zeller is averaging 17.6 points on 56.3 percent shooting, 9.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.

In ACC games, Zeller leads the conference in field goal percentage and offensive rebounds (3.9) and ranks fourth in scoring, second in rebounding, sixth in blocked shots and seventh in free throw percentage (82.1).

"In the beginning of the year, it's tougher to get up for games," Zeller said in explaining his improved play. "You don't put in quite as much extra work. There was probably a couple of weeks before the ACC started that I started coming in every night and getting shots up for about an hour.

"And then you just start getting incredibly comfortable and once you start getting comfortable, you get a lot of confidence. And from there, I think my teammates gained confidence in me and it's just blown up… It's something where I just started becoming more aggressive and I've done well."

"Well" would be an understatement. Zeller finds himself in a tight battle with Scott for the Player of the Year award and appears to be the current frontrunner. Scott is averaging 16.9 points on 57.3 percent shooting and 8.1 rebounds on the season, while scoring 17.9 points on 54.3 percent shooting and pulling down 7.3 rebounds in ACC games.

A closer look at their production against the ACC's top teams – North Carolina, Duke, Florida State and Virginia – shows that while both have played well, Zeller has been better.

In four games, Zeller averaged 20.5 points on 60.0 percent shooting (30-of-50) and 10.0 rebounds. Scott also played four games against that top tier and averaged 15.8 points on 49.1 percent shooting (28-of-57) and 8.3 rebounds.

Both players have one more opportunity against an upper echelon team in the ACC to argue their case as Virginia hosts Florida State on Thursday and North Carolina travels to Duke on Saturday.

Space Limited for Heels on All-ACC's First Team

As it turns out, Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association members may have an easier time voting for the ACC Player of the Year than they do narrowing down the first-team all-conference honors.

Zeller and Scott are locks for first-team honors. But North Carolina's John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall all have arguments for inclusion.

Henson earned ACC Player of the Week honors on Monday for the third time this season and leads the conference in rebounding (10.4), blocked shots (3.1) and double-doubles (15). Barnes ranks second in scoring in ACC games with 18.2 points per game and is converting a higher rate of his field goal attempts (43.4-to-40.2) in ACC play than leading scorer Terrell Stoglin (21.4 ppg).

Stoglin's 40.2 field goal percentage in ACC games ranks 40th out of 60 conference starters.

Marshall leads the league with 9.7 assists per game – including a 9.4 assists-per-game average in ACC games – and needs just 23 assists to break the ACC single-season assist record, set by Georgia Tech's Craig Neal in 1988. The bad news, however, is that Neal failed to earn All-ACC honors that season despite dishing out 11.6 assists per game in conference play.

The odds that UNC lands four players on the first team are remote, if not impossible. As one ACSMA voter tweeted on Sunday night: "no way UNC deserves four."

History backs up that sentiment. Duke's 2002 squad is the only one in ACC history to put more than two players on the All-ACC first-team – Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Jr. and Carlos Boozer. Oddly enough, the Blue Devils finished two games behind ACC regular season champion Maryland in the standings that season.

Zeller, Henson and Barnes earned second-team All-ACC honors and Marshall garnered third-team recognition last season, marking the first time four Tar Heels made an All-ACC team since 2005 (Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Jawad Williams).

Williams is not one to politick for his players to pick up awards, but he shared his opinions on the matter with his radio show audience on Monday night.

"You want your kids to be rewarded if they've been successful," Williams said. "I've always said that the teams that are most successful – their players should get the awards and rewards."

North Carolina's quartet will undoubtedly earn All-ACC recognition next week, but not everyone will be on the first team.

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