CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina coach Roy Williams finally has some good news.
Seven-foot sophomore Tyler Zeller is expected to return to the lineup at Boston College on Saturday, giving a desperately needed boost to the struggling and injury-depleted Tar Heels. Zeller has missed the past month with a foot injury as the defending national champions fell near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
Zeller returned to limited work last week, then went through a full practice Thursday. Players were not available for interviews Friday, though Zeller was seen getting some shots up in the Smith Center shortly after Williams' news conference.
"I'm hoping we can get him in and get some productive minutes out of him," Williams said. "That with each and every game, he can build on it. But it's hard. He's been out for (10) games ... so it's been quite a while. But we're going to give him a chance to see what he can do when he does get in there."
Zeller missed last month's loss at Clemson as a precaution due to pain in his right foot, which was diagnosed the next day as a stress fracture. The Tar Heels (14-12, 3-8) have lost eight of 10 since Zeller went down, a stretch that has also seen them lose fellow big men Ed Davis (likely for the season with a broken left wrist) and freshman Travis Wear (indefinitely with a sprained left ankle).
Zeller averages 9.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and shot 56 percent in just 16 minutes per game off the bench. His return will provide some needed punch for a traditionally fast-paced and high-scoring offense that has turned anemic amid injuries, turnovers and youthful mistakes.
North Carolina managed just 54 points in a loss to Duke for its lowest scoring output under Williams, then broke that mark two games later by managing 51 in a lopsided loss at Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels already have their most losses in seven seasons under the Hall of Fame coach and play three of their last five on the road — where they are 1-6 this season.
"There's no doubt in my mind that I'm still confident we can go on a run and be in the (NCAA) tournament," Williams said. "It looks a lot more cloudy, from what everybody says looking at it realistically and I can understand that. But that's where I'm focusing on right now."
Zeller is also coming back from his second significant injury in as many seasons. He started the first two games last year when All-American Tyler Hansbrough was sidelined with a shin injury, but suffered a broken wrist when he was fouled hard on a breakaway late in the second game against Kentucky.
That injury kept him out until February, when he decided to burn a possible redshirt year and return to help the Tar Heels win a second NCAA title in five seasons.
Williams said Wear will remain sidelined against BC, though he recently returned to some shooting and individual work.