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Zeller 'stretch'es to the Smith Center rafters

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller said having his jersey hanging in the rafters was always a goal -- but a “stretch goal,’’ one of those terms he learned in business school to describe an achievement that seems awfully hard to accomplish.

But he’s done it.

By being named ACC Player of the Year on Tuesday -- beating out Virginia’s Mike Scott (14 votes) and teammates Harrison Barnes (2) and John Henson (1) -- Zeller met one of UNC’s criteria for having his No. 44 jersey honored. He won the award by a landslide, earning 45 of the 62 votes cast.

In addition, Henson repeated as ACC Defensive Player of the Year; Duke’s Austin Rivers was named ACC Rookie of the Year; and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton was named ACC Coach of the Year.

Zeller is the 13th Tar Heel to be named the league’s Player of the Year (Larry Miller won it twice). The forward from Washington, Ind., was also named a second-team member of The Sporting News All-America teams on Tuesday, another qualification to hang his jersey in the rafters. He also is a finalist for the Wooden Award, and the USBWA’s District III Player of the Year.

“It’s a very special honor, something you dream about when you are a young player,” Zeller said of winning ACC POY in a prepared statement Tuesday. “I am so proud to know that, as a result, my jersey will go in the rafters [at the Smith Center], which is another great honor. You look up there and see the names of the Tar Heels who came before you and you know that it’s a tremendous honor that my jersey will be up there with them.”

Frankly, earning the conference’s top honor did seem like a long shot at beginning of the season. His teammate, Barnes, was the runaway favorite for preseason ACC Player of the Year; and Zeller didn’t start 2011-12 with the same aggression or statistics that he ended the previous one. During his first 15 non-conference games, he averaged 13.9 points and 8.9 rebounds. Even coach Roy Williams admitted that “he didn’t have the Tyler games that I expected.”

But once ACC play began in early January, something clicked. He focused in, grew more assertive, started amassing double-doubles. Even during UNC’s awful 33-point loss at Florida State, Zeller recorded 14 points and 14 rebounds, the best effort by far on the team.

What changed at the start of conference play?

“In the beginning of the year, it’s tougher to get up for games,” Zeller said recently. “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.”

Even so, he didn’t realize until a couple of weeks back that he was in the ACC POY mix; the two-time Academic All-America tends to ignore such things. And even as late a Monday, he knew it would be a tough race with Scott, without whom the Cavaliers wouldn't be a top-four conference squad.

After being told the fifth-year Virginia forward had scored 35 points in his regular-season finale, Zeller even smiled and joked, “Oooh! That's not helping my cause.”

In the end, though, several factors likely helped his cause the most: Zeller out-played foul-plagued Scott in both UNC-UVa. games this season, the Tar Heels won the regular-season title, and he averaged 18.5 points and 9.7 rebounds in 16 ACC games.

Add all of that together, and perhaps earning ACC Player of the Year -- and qualifying to have his jersey honored -- wasn’t such a stretch after all. Even though he and his team have reached other pride-inducing goals.

“It's one of those things where I love personal awards,’’ Zeller said Monday when asked about the possibility of winning of winning Player of the Year. “It's always a great honor to be able to say ‘I did this,’ or ‘I did this,’ but it is a team sport. Being able to say we won Saturday [at Duke to win the ACC regular-season title] is something I think I'll talk about for longer.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.