CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller was surprised, last week, to learn that his name was being tossed around in the ACC Player of the Year conversation. Especially considering the teammate-candidates around him.
“Kendall, Harrison, John are all phenomenal at what they do,’’ Zeller said. “We all have our little niches … and our team has really been playing great.”
And therein lay one rub.
Virginia forward Mike Scott -- who the seventh-ranked Tar Heels will face in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday -- as well as Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin (the league’s leading scorer) and Duke starters Mason Plumlee and Austin Rivers will all be mentioned for the season-ending award.
But more difficult than choosing the league’s player of the year this season may be choosing UNC’s candidate for league player of the year.
Think about it: You’ve got Zeller, who turned his aggressiveness up several notches once ACC competition began and has become, Williams said, the team’s “rock." Then there’s sophomore Harrison Barnes, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year who has come on strong of late, posting 20 or more points in four of his past five games.
How to choose?
“It would be better if it had better terminology,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said last week. “If it was the MVP, you could say Most Valuable. If it was Most Outstanding, then you have that. But they just call it ‘Player of the Year,’ don’t they? So you can go any way you want to go, depending on who the voter is.”
(Voters, by the way, are dues-paying members of ACSMA, the ACC’s media association. Seventy-five people cast ballots last season.)
The initials make for an important distinction: An MOP is usually considered the best player (a la Zeller, Barnes or Henson) on one of the best teams. An MVP may not boast the loudest stats across the board, but the team wouldn't be where it is without him (a la Marshall).
“Player of the Year” as Williams mentioned, is in the eye of the beholder. While UNC can tout a candidate, voters can cast their ballot for anyone.
Who to choose from UNC? A breakdown:
When asked about the award last Friday, Williams said he wasn’t politicking, but he appeared to cast his lot with Zeller, a 7-footer who is averaging 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds in conference play.
“The, terminology, the Player of the Year, it can be whatever everybody wants it to be, but he’s just been the rock, he’s been there most every night, he’s been the most consistent,’’ Williams said. “And he’s been consistent at a very high level.”
Zeller, who was named Academic All-America of the Year on Thursday, had a slower-than-expected start to the season but has turned it on in ACC play. He’s posted six double-doubles in 13 league games, and scored in double figures in all but one.
“I’m just trying to play as well as possible,’’ Zeller said, “and help my team as much as possible.”
Barnes, who is projected as the highest NBA draft pick of the bunch, received his fair share of criticism early-on, from folks who wanted to see him get to the basket more, create his own shot, rebound better, defend more, become a better ballhandler.
Through it all, one thing has remained consistent from last season: when UNC has needed an offensive spark, the sophomore has taken on the role.
In his past three games, he’s particularly stepped up, averaging 22.3 points and 5.0 rebounds, all while his previously-sprained ankle is still not 100 percent.
“No question, this is it, this is what you play for, this is what you come to college basketball for,’’ he said last weekend. “You’re preparing for March Madness. And if you go out there on the court these last two or three games, and you don’t leave it all out there, you’re cheating yourself and you’re cheating your teammates.”
And he got some love from his teammate, Henson, on Twitter this week: “Still waiting on people to show HB some NPOY love... I mean do y'all see what he's doing as of late ?? The boy is going to work!”
Henson, last season’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year, still wows crowds with his rejections (3.1 blocks per game) and ability to grab rebounds (10.4 per game) at a massive rate. But he’s become more well-rounded this season, adding hook shots and jumpers to his arsenal.
His offensive numbers have waned a bit during league play (12.8 ppg during ACC games, compared to 14.0 overall), but it’s difficult to ignore how he’s been able to stuff the stat sheets.
“Defense creates offense,” the 6-11 junior said earlier this season, “… but it’s good to be able to [contribute] both.”
Marshall showed on Tuesday that he can score, too, recording a career-high 22 points at N.C. State. But the Tar Heels wouldn’t be where they are without his ability to push the pace, to see the floor, to get his teammates the ball exactly when – and where – they need it.
The sophomore is only 10 passes away from setting UNC’s record for assists in a season, and could set the ACC mark next month, as well. He’s posted 12 double-digit assist games this season alone.
Some voters (despite Tuesday’s 22-point, 13-assist, zero-turnover performance) may still overlook him because he's only averaging 7.1 points per game. But his ability to know his role (and excel at it on a team of stars) should be a credit instead of a demerit. Especially considering his teammates might not shine so much without him.
“If a player does one thing exceptionally well, people are going to focus on that one thing,” Marshall said. “So I try not to take it as a bad thing, but rather just work on other parts of my game. And again, when I have great scorers on my team it’s not my job to score 20 a game.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.