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Juniors Drew, Zeller must play big role on UNC's road to redemption

While the Smith Center undergoes renovations, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has been displaced, with his temporary office located in the adjacent Koury Natatorium.

It's as if Dean Smith said "Get out of my house" following a highly upsetting season that began with the defending champion Tar Heels ranked No. 6 by the AP and No. 4 by the coaches.

The 20-17 record is the worst in Williams' career, which consists of coaching two of the nation's three winningest programs. The Tar Heels wrapped up the forgettable season with a loss to Dayton in the NIT championship game. And the UNC coach certainly wasn't pleased to play in the other postseason tournament.

"I took a great deal of pride in playing in 20 consecutive NCAA tournaments," Williams said. "Not only played but won a game, and nobody else had ever done that. There was a lot of thinking introspectively. I think I'll carry that disappointment all summer until we get out on the court and erase it this year."

UNC doesn't look drastically different from last year's squad that had to replace its top four scorers from the 2009 national championship team. Larry Drew II will continue to run the point, while the planned -- and unplanned -- departure of post players leaves the Tar Heels thin on the inside.

Drew started all but one game for UNC last season. The junior point guard averaged 5.9 assists per game on a team whose leading scorer averaged just 13.7 points (graduated Deon Thompson).

But the growing point guard has plenty of room for improvement. Both Williams and Drew pointed at one category in particular: turnovers.

"Larry's just gotta make better decisions with the ball," Williams said. "He had a lot of assists last year without a great offensive team around him. Ty Lawson had a great offensive team around him that he could pass the ball to and he got a lot of easy assists because those guys made plays. Larry did not have that last year."

The comparisons to Lawson have been endless for Drew. In the immediate shadow of yet another great Tar Heels point guard, Drew has dealt with the expectations that come along with following a guy who had a 3.48 assist-to-turnover ratio in a title-winning season.

"I wasn't necessarily trying to fill his shoes," Drew said. "I'm all about being me. It was definitely challenging to not play as much as a freshman and watch a guy like Ty, and then start as a sophomore and people kind of throw these expectations at you. The things that he brought the program, I definitely want to be like him in that sense. But I don't want to be him."

Without the four would-be NBA draft picks Lawson was blessed with, Drew will have to rely on players like superfrosh Harrison Barnes and fellow junior Tyler Zeller. Williams, a follower of the Smith doctrine that freshmen get no attention, was hesitant to name Barnes the go-to guy on this year's team but spoke highly of his upperclassman Zeller. The 7-footer has packed on 35 pounds since coming to UNC in 2008 and has worked on his outside game to become a scoring threat from anywhere inside 18 feet.

Zeller has worked on both his hook shot and face-up game this offseason, but is still not where he wants to be coming off his second injury in two years. Zeller has yet to enjoy a full ACC season; a wrist injury sidelined him for 23 games his freshman season and a foot injury last year kept him out for 10 games.

"They've definitely made me physically stronger," said Zeller, who pointed to the weight he gained from his lethargy after both injuries. "But the other part of it is, I don't have the experience I should have as a junior. I don't have the game time. And then taking long periods of time off like that, you can't really develop your skills."

But fellow slim big man John Henson pointed out that Zeller can score a lot of points in a small amount of time. He averaged 9.3 points in only 17.4 minutes last year. UNC desperately needs that production if there will be any presence in the Carolina blue paint this season following the surprise departures of David and Travis Wear;neither Williams nor former roommate Zeller has heard from the two players since they went back to California (transferring to UCLA).

The addition of Alabama transfer Justin Knox -- along with the weight on both Henson and Zeller -- should be enough to lead the Tar Heels on the blocks. Couple that with the future lottery pick Barnes and a more ball-protective Drew, and UNC may very well find itself playing in front of more fans at home and in a higher-profile postseason tournament.

"In the tournament we should be in -- the NCAA tournament," Drew said. "We weren't delivering last year, so I don't really blame the people for not wanting to pay the money to come see us get whupped out here."

Jonathan Jones is the sports editor of the Daily Tar Heel.

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