CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Tyler Zeller’s freshman year at North Carolina was supposed to be over, done in by a broken wrist just two games into the season.
The seven-footer seemed destined to watch the Tar Heels chase a national championship from the bench as a redshirted rookie.
Yet Zeller is back after sitting out three long months, a choice that amounted to burning a year of eligibility for just a handful of guaranteed games.
He knows this might be his best chance to be part of title-winning team, and that decision seems like a wise one now that the Tar Heels have made it back to the Final Four.
“I’ve always felt good about it,” Zeller said Tuesday. “But now it’s kind of starting to pay off because I do get to play in the Final Four now and I do get to be a part of it more so than I would have just being a redshirt.
“I’m trying to help the guys out this year and get prepared for next year.”
At first glance, Zeller’s return is seemingly little more than a luxury for the Tar Heels (32-4) heading into Saturday’s national semifinal against Villanova in Detroit.
He is fourth on the depth chart behind Tyler Hansbrough, fellow starter Deon Thompson and 6-foot-10 freshman Ed Davis, and hasn’t played more than 13 minutes in an NCAA tournament game so far.
But Zeller proved valuable against Oklahoma in last weekend’s South Regional championship game, where he was one of three players who guarded all-American Blake Griffin after Hansbrough picked up two early fouls.
Zeller’s stats were modest — two points, two rebounds in six minutes — but it was still key in the overall defensive effort on Griffin in the 72-60 win.
The Tar Heels hope that experience helps in Detroit and beyond.
It’s a smaller role than Zeller probably envisioned after the first game of his college career, when the McDonald’s All-American started in place of an injured Hansbrough and scored 18 points against Penn in the season opener.
He seemed a perfect fit for North Carolina’s fast-paced offence with his lanky frame, ability to run and soft jumper.
Zeller started again three days later against Kentucky, but was injured when he was knocked to the ground after taking a hard foul in the final minutes.
The next day, the school said Zeller had surgery to repair fractures in two places, a recovery that normally takes 12 to 16 weeks and would likely keep him out for the year.
Within a few weeks, Zeller started working out with weights again, doing everything from squats to bench presses in which he had a dumbbell in his right hand and pretended to have one in his left.