'Fearless' Zakai Zeigler a very bright spot for inconsistent Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee freshman point guard Zakai Zeigler has provided instant energy and productivity during recent games at Thompson-Boling Arena after the Volunteers have experienced slow starts.

It's hard to find a more sleep-inducing element in sports right now than the opening stages of a Tennessee men's basketball game inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

The No. 22 Volunteers trailed 8-3 through the first five minutes of Tuesday night's eventual 66-46 whipping of South Carolina, and they were down 13-2 after 10 minutes of a 66-60 overtime topping of Ole Miss on Jan. 5. These slow starts have quickly turned Thompson-Boling into a 21,678-seat morgue, but freshman point guard Zakai Zeigler has been coming off the bench to liven up the place.

"When he comes in the game, everything is going to change," Tennessee seventh-year coach Rick Barnes said in a news conference after Tuesday's win. "The tempo is going to change. All year long, he has come in and just brings that energy. He's fearless, and he's not going to back down from anybody."

Zeigler is the smallest member of this season's Vols, who will carry an 11-4 overall record and a 2-2 Southeastern Conference mark into Saturday's 1 p.m. showdown at No. 18 Kentucky (13-3, 3-1) on ESPN. At 5-foot-9 and 167 pounds, Zeigler is actually the smallest Tennessee scholarship player in more than 40 years.

Yet the Long Island resident keeps coming up big.

Zeigler's layup at the 14:45 mark of Tuesday's triumph marked Tennessee's first basket of the evening, and he would wind up with 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting that included a made 3-pointer. His 22 minutes of action also contained four assists, four steals, one rebound and an immeasurable spark.

"It wasn't as much about doing anything offensively as it was just bringing any type of energy that could boost us up and get us on a roll and get going," Zeigler said. "That's with any other game. When I come off the bench, I just want to bring that energy. I don't want any letdowns."

In the win over Ole Miss, Zeigler collected eight points, five rebounds, five steals and three assists in 28 minutes. He is averaging 18.9 minutes and 6.9 points per contest, having also tallied 39 assists and 24 steals while committing 21 turnovers.

Zeigler's most memorable performance was scoring 18 points without a single turnover in the 89-72 thumping of North Carolina on Nov. 21, but defense is the favorite aspect to his game. In fact, he believes college basketball doesn't have a better defender out there.

"I just look at it as me and him. Who's the better man? I'm going to stop him," Zeigler said. "That's the mindset I come in with at any time. If I do get beat here and there, I know that I'm playing along with the best defensive team in the country. My guys have my back no matter what, and I have their back no matter what.

"If it's one-on-one defense, though, I feel like I'm going to win."

The New York City area has been beyond kind to Tennessee basketball through the years with the likes of Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Howard Wood, Tobias Harris and Kevin Punter, and Zeigler has quickly shown the desire to keep that tradition going. Starting point guard Kennedy Chandler certainly arrived with more hype and has displayed his five-star status on multiple occasions, but junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua recently referred to Zeigler and junior guard Santiago Vescovi as "the heart and soul of our team."

Barnes this week linked Zeigler and Vescovi due to their elite conditioning, and it's hard to find a more consistent or reliable player on Tennessee's roster right now.

"We keep up with how many miles guys have run since the very first day of practice, and he and Santi are way out in front," Barnes said. "There is no doubt our team has a lot of confidence when Zakai comes in the game, because they know he's going to fight and scratch for anything he has to do to help the team."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.