CHAPEL HILL — Among the 45 students in Jim Kitchen's 500-level business class at North Carolina, Tyler Zeller stood out for a couple of reasons. Seven feet tall, he carries with his height the high-profile prestige that comes with playing a leading role on the No. 6 Tar Heels basketball team.
But to Kitchen, a lecturer in UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, Zeller proved memorable for entirely different reasons. He admired Zeller's organizational skills, the way he approached his work in the classroom. Kitchen said he admired Zeller's thought process and his ability to plan.
"Tyler seems to be mature beyond his years," said Kitchen, who taught Zeller in an entrepreneurship class during the fall 2011 semester. "And what I mean by that is he's got a really good perspective on what's important in life. It seems like he really believes doing things the right way for the right reasons, treating people with respect and working hard."
Kitchen was talking about Zeller the student, but his description mirrors the kind of things that Roy Williams, the Tar Heels basketball coach, has said about Zeller the athlete.
Zeller will play in the final home game of his collegiate career tonight against Maryland at the Smith Center (7, ESPN), where emotions are likely to be running high on senior night.
Williams said this week that he's likely to be carried away amid the spectacle of senior night. He described himself as "corny" that way. Zeller, though, is the opposite.
"I'd like to think that I'm not very emotional," he said Tuesday. "But we'll see what happens. I'm not a very emotional person, so I think that hopefully I can get through the beginning and play the game and then after the game, I think it'll be much easier to relax and kind of enjoy the moment."
Zeller last week became the first basketball player in school history to earn academic all-America honors in two seasons. A business administration major with a 3.6 GPA, he was named the academic All-American of the Year by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
Zeller said he hadn't thought much about playing for the final time at the Smith Center, and he hadn't thought much of what it means "until I got asked a million questions about it today." It wasn't that long ago, only three years, when Zeller was a freshman, learning from senior Tyler Hansbrough.
Now Zeller has emerged as the teacher, albeit a less outwardly intense one than Hansbrough was during his time at North Carolina.
"He's the quiet leader," Williams said of Zeller. "He doesn't say much. But when he does, the kids have a great deal of respect for him. ... His attitude, the respect he has from his teammates, there is no question they had a tremendous amount of respect at the start of the year, but I think it's even more so now."
A special influence
Zeller grew up in a competitive home, the middle son among three boys. His older brother played at Notre Dame, and his younger brother Cody is a standout freshman at Indiana.
It wasn't until he reached high school, though, that Zeller learned he could influence people just by doing what he normally does.
"(I) kind of learned that I could be a good role model, the way I work, the way I compete," he said.
And so it has been for Zeller during his senior season. He has spent a lot of time in recent years studying leadership and the concepts of it as it applies in the business world. On the court, though, Zeller has led with an approach he learned all on his own.
At times this season, Williams criticized the intensity of his team. He wanted the Tar Heels to play with more passion, more energy.
Zeller has consistently provided both of those intangibles, especially since the beginning of ACC play, and has emerged as a leading candidate for ACC Player of the Year honors.
He admitted it was difficult even for him to find motivation earlier this season, when North Carolina played its share of games against lesser competition.
Once ACC play began, though, Zeller began spending more nights in the Smith Center, shooting alone and working on his game.
On a team full of all-conference candidates, Zeller has been the steadiest, most consistently productive player.
"He's definitely become a much more vocal leader (in) his senior year," said sophomore forward Harrison Barnes. "You know, I think that's just experience, playing better, things like that. Now he's really developed and embraced that role of being the senior leader for this team."
While completing coursework toward his business administration degree, Zeller said he has taken two courses devoted entirely to the concept of leadership.
He is enrolled in a similar course this semester, and he has attended other seminars about leadership.
Among academics there is debate, Zeller said, about whether leaders can be made or whether the ability to lead is innate. He thought about that while he attempted to take on a greater leadership role when the season began.
"I've been through a lot of leadership courses," he said, "and it's something they always tell you - that you have to step into it. You can't be forcing yourself into it. I think I've tried, but at the same time I try not to force it upon people. And if they listen to me, that's great, if not, that's what coach Williams is for."