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February 28, 2012

Senior spotlight

Anyone who believes North Carolina will overlook Maryland on Wednesday in this season's final home game does not understand the importance of "senior night" at UNC.

Former coach Dean Smith may not have invented "senior night," a celebration for the seniors and their families, but he certainly enhanced it as much as any coach in the nation.

The sixth-ranked Tar Heels (25-4, 12-2) will play Maryland (16-12, 6-8) at 7 p.m. Coach Roy Williams, in keeping with the long tradition under Smith, will start the five seniors on the roster, even though three of them are walk-ons and a fourth, Justin Watts, is a little-used scholarship player.

"It probably does mean more to me than it does some other coaches," Williams said. "I think that playing in the Smith Center the last time in front of those fans that supported you for four years is extremely important. The memories that you're going to have from those four years are going to be extremely important. The last time you do it, you want it to be special. … I think that being able to walk over there and give your mom a rose and hug your mom and dad and then walk out on to the court and have those fans be able to say thank you, and for you to be able to say thank you … all of that is good stuff.

"We don't emphasize the good stuff enough in college athletics. It's a great experience to be able to do that in front of our fans."

The rest of the team will be expected to give their finest effort in order to honor the seniors and assure those players finish their career at the Smith Center with a victory.

Watts sacrificed a lot to be a Tar Heel. Had he chosen to attend a non-ACC school with a lesser tradition in basketball, he could have played much more. Instead, he wanted to be a part of Carolina's great tradition, and in return he has given his best effort in practice, games and as a leader.

Senior forward Tyler Zeller, on the other hand, is one of those players Williams had to work diligently to recruit away from many of the nation's top programs.

Zeller chose to remain in school for all four years, and he and the team have been rewarded by his steady progress. He is now one of the finest players in the ACC and the country.

His excellence in the classroom has also brought honor to Carolina at a time when the school needed it. Zeller was recently named the academic All-American of the year for men's basketball.

A business administration major with a 3.62 grade point average, Zeller is the only Tar Heel to earn first-team academic All-America honors in two seasons.

The chance to excel at both has been special for Zeller and Williams.

"It's definitely a humbling experience," Zeller said. "I'm very happy to be allowed to be a part of this tradition and this great university. Playing the last game is going to be very interesting.

"I'm not a very emotional person, so we'll play the game and hopefully afterward it will register that it is my last game [at the Smith Center]."

A victory will assure the Tar Heels of an opportunity to finish alone in first place if they can defeat Duke in Durham on Saturday.

To achieve this goal, the Tar Heels must continue the improvement that at an accelerated pace after an embarrassing loss at Florida State on Jan. 14.

Carolina performed with poise and toughness in a 54-51 victory at Virginia this past Saturday, but Williams said the Tar Heels must do more against Maryland and Duke.

"You want to put yourself in position to win the conference championship in the last week," Williams said. "And if you do that, you've also put yourself in position to be in the NCAA Tournament. You've also put yourself in position to get a fairly good seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"In our case, we have to start playing a little better. Virginia really made us look bad at times on Saturday."

UNC will do this by looking to Zeller, who has excellent so far this season. He has consistently scored and rebounded at an elite pace.

Zeller is sixth in the league in scoring at 15.7 points per game, third in rebounding at 9.3 per game, second in field goal percentage (54.5 percent) and 10th in free-throw percentage (79.2 percent). He leads the league in offensive rebounds per game at 3.8.

"Coming in I was a role player, and I've been able to progress from being a role player to more of somebody they can rely on," Zeller said. "I think I've become pretty reliable."

There is no doubt about Zeller's reliability and his worth to one of the nation's best teams.

"I told those two kids in front of the whole team, and I almost got emotional thinking about it," Williams said, "in my professional career, Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts were with me at the highest you could possibly be and Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts, in my professional career, were with me at the lowest moment I could possibly be and that was 2010.

"Those kids have gone through so many different things and have stuck with what we're trying to do and be good examples and good representatives of the university as well as our basketball program. I will be extremely emotional Wednesday night, and I will be extremely fired up and those guys."


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