UNC notes: Guarding Zeller, running tough

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Slowing National Player of the Year candidate Cody Zeller will be a big concern when 14th-ranked North Carolina plays at No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday night, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said Monday.

Slowing Zeller and the rest of his teammates, though, is even more of a worry.

“Look at their stats," Williams said. “I mean, seriously: five guys in double figures. ... That’s why no one could guard us in ’09. You had to worry about Tyler Hansbrough, but then Wayne [Ellington] and Danny [Green] and Ty [Lawson] were going to score them three at a time. So that was an easier year for Tyler than he ever had before because he wasn’t facing two and three guys.

“We have to be concerned about Cody, but again ... they have five guys in double figures.”

Indeed, Zeller (15.2 ppg) -- the younger brother of former Tar Heels 7-footer Tyler Zeller -- does have the luxury of playing within a balanced offense that includes Christian Watford (13.2), Jordan Hulls (13.0), Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey (11.0).

But those guys also have the luxury of playing with him. A 7-footer, he runs the floor, pulls down 7.7 rebounds per game and makes 64 percent of his shots. It's no coincidence that the Hoosiers rose from 12 wins in 2010-11 to 27 in 2011-12 (Zeller's freshman season). He’ll be a tall challenge for the Tar Heels’ inexperienced forwards.

“He’s a remarkable player," Williams said of the sophomore, who chose the Hoosiers over the Tar Heels. “He’s got Z’s size, but does some more things out on the court probably than Tyler did for us, and [has] maybe a little more flexibility to his game.

“He is THE one, but they’ve got five guys averaging double figures, and you guys have heard me say before that that’s the most difficult kind of team to guard. So we can’t just load it up on [Cody], because all four of those guys average double figures as well.”

TOUGH TASK: When the Tar Heels returned to practice on Saturday after returning from the Maui Invitational, Williams told his team he wasn’t happy.

At issue: the team’s mental and physical toughness, particularly after falling behind by as many as 29 points against Butler. So he increased the intensity in the weekend practices.

“It’s been rough," senior Dexter Strickland said. “We ran so much yesterday. But I look at it as, not punishment, but something to make us better. I think we ran about eight 33s yesterday, and I think that was good for us ... we definitely got in shape yesterday."

Running a "33," by the way, means sprinting up and down the court three times in less than 33 seconds, Strickland said. By comparison, the Tar Heels usually do only two or three at the end of a practice.

“Somebody else maybe said, ‘well, you went 2-1 [during the tournament],’ but I was not happy because I don’t like 2-1 when you can be 3-0, but I also don’t like the way we played," Williams said. “So we’ve tried to challenge them in the last couple of days, and we’ve got to play better than that.”

THE 5 SPOT: Freshman Brice Johnson got his first start of the season against Chaminade in the Maui Invitational third-place game, replacing Desmond Hubert. But asked how much of a grasp Johnson has on that starting slot, Williams said: "Not at all.

“I was in the mood to start him, and it was a better match-up that day. I have no idea who I’m going to start tomorrow night in that spot; I really don’t.”

PAIGE OK: Freshman point guard Marcus Paige played only 16 minutes against Chaminade as a precaution after tweaking his back the night before in the loss to Butler.

“He could have played, but it’s a 30-point game, so why keep him in the game?” Williams said. “I don’t think we played him the last 16 minutes or something like that, but he’s practiced both days [since the Tar Heels returned] and been fine.”

Meanwhile, sophomore wing P.J. Hairston's status is uncertain after spraining his knee in practice Sunday.