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Mythbusters: Is UNC Missing Tyler Zeller More Than We Realize?

Mythbusters is a recurring feature on Blue vs. Blue that offers a chance to support or debunk tidbits of conventional wisdom that are being put forth by the fan bases or the media. To read all the Mythbusters-related posts, click here.

With Carolina’s recent well-documented slide, more than a few theories have been thrown around regarding what exactly could be the reason for the Heels’ struggles, including Alex’s last post which fleshed out a few observations from the Duke side. However, one theory that I’ve been particularly interested in that I haven’t seen get much play is whether or not the Heels are missing Tyler Zeller, who has been out since mid-January with a stress fracture in his foot. Since Zeller’s injury, the Heels have gone 1-6 (all ACC games) starting with the complete meltdown at Clemson.

Now, we obviously can’t draw a direct corollary between the two because plenty of other things have been contributing to Carolina falling completely off the map. It’s especially hard to believe that UNC would be winning games if Zeller were active because: 1) even with him missing, the Heels have a pretty formidable front line, including a potential top-5 draft pick; and 2) Zeller didn’t come up particularly big in Carolina’s biggest wins - he notched just 6 points and 2 boards against Ohio State and 6 pts, 5 rbs against Michigan State.

However, I wanted to look at a couple of ways Zeller’s absence is affecting the Heels on both ends of the floor, and particular reasons why his absence might be hurting the Heels.

  1. Zeller is a much bigger offensive asset than fans realize. Though 9.6 points and 4.6 boards a game aren’t stats that jump out at you, it’s Zeller’s efficiency that was so key for UNC. According to Ken Pomeroy’s oft-revered rating system, Zeller is actually UNC’s best-rated offensive player, with a true shooting percentage just a shade under 60% and a turnover rate that’s among the lowest on the team. While he doesn’t solve Carolina’s go-to-guy issues, he rarely hurt us offensively and does so many things better than his replacements (we’ll get to that in a second) that our offensive efficiency as a team has gone into the crapper since he’s been gone. Carolina’s scoring output has been on a consistent downward trend and they’ve failed to crack 40% shooting as a team in four of the seven games Zeller has missed. I also wish someone was tracking stats like “shots missed inside of 5 feet” because I don’t know if it’s just my gut reaction but I feel like the Heels have missed SO many more gimmes in conference play than in OOC games and I have to feel like Zeller’s touch inside would help that.
  2. The Heels are still putting athletic bigs on the floor, but they aren’t producing nearly as well. Zeller’s absence has led directly to Ed Davis and Deon Thompson notching a few more minutes, but mostly being replaced by some extra playing time from the Wear twins (mostly Travis) and John Henson. At this point in the season, Travis Wear and Henson combined have played nearly twice as many minutes as Zeller, yet still haven’t outscored him (Wear + Henson = 148 pts combined to Zeller’s 154) 
  3. Free throws, people. Free throws. Where Zeller’s absence really kills the Heels is at the free-thow line, where their recent struggles have been well documented. Zeller shoots 74% at the charity stripe, a dream compared to both freshmen hovering under 55% and Ed Davis at 67%. Not to mention his turnover percentage (13.3) is nearly half that of the two freshmen (Wear at 25.3, Henson at 24.7) and a nice chunk lower than either Ed Davis (17.6) or Deon Thompson (17.2).
  4. Surprise! Zeller is tall, which helps things like rebounding and defense. So we know he’s a seven-footer, but the general consensus about Zeller is that he plays soft and doesn’t rebound much. However, having a big guy who can move as well as he does has got to help with boxing out an extra man or distracting people or something because while Zeller doesn’t accrue huge individual rebounding stats, UNC has really struggled with defensive rebounding in ACC play, failing to even crack 20 defensive boards against Wake and UVa. That may have something to do with the fact that the Heels couldn’t actually get missed shots in order to collect rebounds, but let’s face it - having another seven-footer in the middle probably would help improve our awful in-conference opponents’ shooting percentage, as well.

So there you go - just a couple of reasons Zeller’s absence might be contributing to the complete suckitude we’re seeing out of the Heels right now. It’ll be particularly interesting as Zeller may be able to suit up against Duke tomorrow night and we’ll see if the Heels are noticeably better on the court. Of course, this could all be complete conjecture as Carolina has really struggled in ACC play with things like 3-point shooting, which Zeller doesn’t contribute to, and their assist numbers, which he doesn’t really hand out (but I guess could help overall by running the floor and making shots as well as he does). All I know is that Carolina has really crapped the bed with their offensive efficiency since the home game against Virginia Tech, which was Tyler Zeller’s last appearance in uniform. Like I said, it could be a total coincidence or a combination of a lot of other things accelerating which were already starting to go badly for Carolina. 

But if Tyler Zeller comes back and helps UNC turn this thing around, be warned: I’m taking full credit.