Player of the Week
From an NBA draft standpoint, Zeller has greatly raised his stock by becoming a better rebounder, a more polished defender and a smarter passer. It's refreshing to see a prospect that understands his weaknesses and uses his time at school to actually make himself a better player. The fact that Zeller has raised his field-goal shooting percentage and his point, rebound, assist, block and steal averages every single season of his college career is a great testament to his strong work ethic and willingness to improve. He capped off the regular season by scoring 19 points (9/11 from the floor) and pulling down 10 rebounds in an 88-70 blowout win at Duke. Not bad. Maybe it doesn't live up to the 30-point, 20-made free-throw standard that he set in his previous game (win against Maryland on Wednesday), but it did help his team win the regular-season title over their rivals. Anyway, Zeller was recently named the ACC Player of the Year, and it's hard to make a case for anybody else with the way he's been producing lately. If he can carry his recent play into the postseason, then UNC has at least a good chance of winning a national championship.
I remember writing about Ian Miller last summer. Florida State wasn't a good offensive team the previous season, and after losing Chris Singleton to the NBA, they needed a new go-to scorer. Miller was a freak athlete and a quality shooter with a year under his belt. It appeared that he would have every opportunity to break out this season. While he didn't become a go-to scorer (not yet, anyway), he is averaging a respectable 10.8 points per game this year and did perform like a hero in last week's FSU/Virginia matchup. Miller scored 15 points in the second half, including the last second tie-breaking triple, to help FSU come back from a double-digit deficit to defeat the Cavaliers and clinch a first-round bye in the ACC tournament. This was only the latest in a series of clutch performances from FSU players. Forward Michael Snaer hit a buzzer-beating three in January to give the Seminoles a victory at Duke. He did it again a few weeks later, making a three with 2.6 seconds left to give his team a 48-47 win against Virginia Tech. Florida State is consistently a great defensive team, and there's little doubt they'll be taking that ability into the tournament with them. If Miller and Snaer are providing offense to go along with that, then FSU becomes a sleeper team.
Player of the Week
Ryan Kelly hasn't been the top performer in the ACC this week, but he's been a nice contributor for Duke throughout the year and I wanted the chance to talk about him before the season came to an end. I figured this would be the best chance I had to do so, as he's coming off a career-high 23 points scored in a win against Wake Forest. For the past three and a half months, Kelly's been more of a luxury than anything else. He's maybe the third or fourth scoring option on the team. He provides the roster with a little more size and doesn't hurt the team by making a lot of mistakes. My point is that he's a good player, but not exactly the biggest cog in Duke's system. However, his usefulness could skyrocket this weekend if the stars align. Let me explain: Duke has the top record in the ACC (13-2). North Carolina is right behind them (12-2) and could tie that record with a win against Maryland on Wednesday. Should UNC win, the regular season title would come down to the UNC/Duke matchup on Saturday. If there's one thing that makes Duke a better team than UNC, it's their perimeter shooting. In their previous matchup (which Duke won), the Blue Devils made 14 three pointers (including one at the buzzer). The Tar Heels just made one. Ryan Kelly gives Duke another big man that can shoot it. But he’s not only giving the team shooting from a unique position, but Ryan is also forcing one of the UNC bigs to defend away from the hoop. Scoring in the paint can only be easier without a John Henson or Tyler Zeller there to bother you. Ryan’s shooting reputation could become a huge factor in this potentially title-deciding game.
Player of the Week
Player of the Week
What? Were you expecting somebody else here? This week's top player just made a huge mark on perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports; a mark that will be remembered and replayed years into the future. Hmmm... Where should I start? So Duke was playing at North Carolina last week. Like many teams before them, the Blue Devils were having a tough time dealing with Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes. It looked like the duo was starting to pull the home team away after Barnes connected on yet another mid-range jumper, giving his team a 10 point lead with just over two-and-a-half minutes left in the game. But Duke hit a couple triples and UNC kept things interesting by missing some free-throws and turning the ball over. Eventually, everything came down to the last possession. Duke was down by two with about ten seconds left. Austin Rivers (who was hot all game, with 26 points at that point) rose up for a three-pointer with Zeller’s arm right in his face... Swish! Everything cultivated into as exciting a finish as we've seen in college basketball this season. Of course that intensity didn't seem to faze the uber-confident Rivers, who really appears to thrive in high-pressure situations. Duke and UNC will face off again at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 3rd. I'm sure the Tar Heels will be eager to set the record straight, but it's hard to bet against Rivers after a performance like that.
Player of the Week
Miami had a tough start to the season. DeQuan Jones was suspended for the first ten games of the year and Julian Gamble injured himself over the summer and isn't expected to play a game in 2011-2012. Center Reggie Johnson wasn't always around to help in the frontcourt either, having missed the first nine games of the season recovering from knee surgery and trying to get back into game-shape ever since his return. The Hurricanes have managed to get through all of that without losing any substantial ground in the ACC standings, and both the team and Reggie Johnson are starting to heat up. Miami has won four straight games, the most recent of which was an overtime victory at Duke. Like the Seminoles before them, the Hurricanes used their size advantage to stage the upset. Johnson scored a career-high 27 points on 11/17 shooting, while pulling down a season-high 12 rebounds. Standing 6'10" at 285 pounds, he's a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams in the ACC. If he stays healthy, he'll be a game-changer that could propel his team up in the ACC standings and potentially into an NCAA tournament birth.
Tyler Zeller's best attributes have always been his athleticism, height and offensive skill-set. He can score in transition, in the post, or at the line. He's very slippery, and consequently, draws a lot of contact. But I don't want to go into great detail about that. Instead, I want to talk about what his greatest flaws were considered to be prior to this season. Critics would say that Zeller was too thin and a poor defender. He was also a mediocre rebounder (especially defensively), and not much of a passer. Zeller had lottery-type talent, but several holes in his game. As a senior, it seems he's been working on addressing those weaknesses. He's not getting pushed around as much in the post, and it's leading to better man-to-man defense and rebounding. After a 17-rebound performance against North Carolina State, and an 18-rebound performance against Wake Forest, his average on the season is up to 9.6 (7.2 rpg in 2010-2011). He's also putting up career-highs in steals (1.0), blocks (1.3) and assists (1.0) per game, all in fewer minutes (26.4 mpg) than he played last season (28.1). It appears Zeller is willing to work hard to make himself a better player, which is something that the NBA will take note of.
Player of the Week
I'll do Barnes and the rest of Tar Heel nation a favor by not mentioning what happened in Florida State a week and a half ago (they lost by 33 points... whoops), but will say they recovered nicely by defeating the Hokies at Virginia Tech by a score of 82-68. Harrison Barnes was the biggest reason for the quick turnaround, as he scored a season-high of 27 points -- nine of which during a decisive 19-0 second-half scoring run by his team. The super sophomore is in the midst of a season that has seen his numbers improve across the board. He was criticized for his poor efficiency last season, as 42.3% shooting from the floor and 34.4% shooting from behind the arc were mediocre for somebody who would have been considered at the very top of last year's draft. This year he's shooting 48.4% from the floor and 43.6% from outside. These stark contrasts stem from several different factors, including his higher confidence, improved shot-selection and tighter handle. It's clear he put a lot of work in during the offseason and it's really playing off. This is scary to think about, but he still has a lot of room to get even better. It's no wonder he's considered a lock for the top-five during this year's draft.
While center Reggie Johnson was recovering from an ACL injury sustained over the summer, transfer student Kenny Kadji was breaking out for his team. The 6'11" junior left Florida for Miami, and is receiving enough minutes to show off the impressive ability that he has. He collects a lot of rebounds and blocks due to his size alone, and has a surprisingly refined offensive game. Kadji is averaging 12.4 points per game (54.9 FG%) and 5.6 rebounds on the season. He also has impressive range for a player his size, having made 12 of his 26 three-point attempts on the season (46.2%). Logic may have suggested that Kadji would become an after-thought with Johnson's recent return to the team, but Kadji is hotter than ever; averaging 20.5 points on 53.3% shooting from the field. His size, mobility and shooting ability seem to complement his teammates well, and if he continues to thrive, you could hear his name in draft conversations a year from now.