Vols’ Zeigler has been sizzling: ‘The first thing you’re concerned about is him'

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler is averaging 17.3 points and 7.8 assists in his last four games entering Wednesday night’s test at Florida.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler is averaging 17.3 points and 7.8 assists in his last four games entering Wednesday night’s test at Florida.

Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes provided quite the declaration in a news conference following Saturday night's 82-71 triumph over 10th-ranked Texas inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

The topic was sophomore Zakai Zeigler.

"What can you say about him?" Barnes said. "I mean, he's got to be right there with the very best point guards in the country when you think about what he does night in and night out."

Zeigler on Monday was named the Southeastern Conference's player of the week after averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 assists in double-digit victories over Georgia and the Longhorns. He didn't play his normal allotment of minutes during last Wednesday's 70-41 drubbing of the Bulldogs but was everywhere against Texas, tallying 22 points, 10 assists, three rebounds and two steals.

It was just the seventh performance of 20 or more points and 10 or more assists in Tennessee history.

"Honestly, I would just say it was having a good feel for the game," Zeigler said afterward. "I didn't know that's what I did, but that's what the box score said. I just think it was a good feel for the game."

Tennessee's weekend win enabled the Vols (18-3, 7-1 SEC) to move from No. 4 to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll heading to Florida (12-9, 5-3) for Wednesday night's pairing at 7 on ESPN2.

This time last year, the 5-foot-9, 171-pounder from Long Island, New York, was developing into a pleasant surprise story. Zeigler was an 11th-hour, three-star signee who was providing consistent contributions offensively and defensively off the bench in relief of five-star freshman starter Kennedy Chandler.

Chandler would spend just one season in Knoxville before getting selected early in the second round by the Memphis Grizzlies.

Zeigler assumed the starting reins at the beginning of this season but tried to do too much and was pulled after the second game against Colorado. He came off the bench the rest of November and through all of December and the first part of January, but he returned to the starting lineup two weeks ago at Mississippi State when both Santiago Vescovi and Tyreke Key were out.

After committing five early turnovers, Zeigler helped rally the Vols to a 70-59 victory in Starkville and has been brilliant since.

"It's something that we talked to him about from last year on, just really understanding what a point guard does," Barnes said Monday in a news conference. "He is such a team player, and I'm not sure there is a guard in the country who has impacted the game as much as he has -- certainly in the month of January. He has been terrific in every area you could ask him to be."

Said Vescovi: "He has great potential, and he's showing it now. Even when he wasn't scoring the way he is now, with his passing and everything else, he was still impacting the game. Whether he makes it or misses, you're always going to get great effort."

Zeigler is averaging 11.2 points and 5.1 assists, but his performance at Mississippi State launched a four-game stretch in which he has averaged 17.3 points and 7.8 assists. He has shot 23-of-44 from the floor during this stretch (52.3%) and has made all 11 free-throw attempts, and he has also racked up 11 steals while committing only nine turnovers.

"He has embraced the fact that he does want to play the game differently than he has through the years," Barnes said. "He can shoot and score, but he's really trying to make his teammates better. He's just seeing the court in a whole different way than he ever has."

Zeigler leads the SEC in free-throw accuracy (84.5%) while ranking second in assists and steals (2.3) per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.30 is ahead of the 1.89 Chandler possessed through 21 games last season.

He is no longer Tennessee's little secret, or the SEC's for that matter.

"It sounds less than flattering to say he's a pest, but he's really disruptive as a defender," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said late last week on a Zoom call. "He's small, but that's an advantage for him in a lot of ways, because he's quick and strong and can really get up underneath you when he's guarding you.

"The first thing you're concerned about is him rather than running your team's offense, and that's a great attribute."

Edwards update

Tennessee's deep rotation this season has not included freshman point guard B.J. Edwards, the four-star signee out of Knox Catholic. The 6-3, 188-pounder has only played in nine of 21 games and has not scored since the win over McNeese on Nov. 30.

"I think he's getting better playing with an older group of guys," Barnes said. "We still think he's a big part of this program and certainly a big part of our future. He's got a great attitude. The guys love him, and he's not afraid to compete.

"We're just in a situation where it's hard to go beyond where we are right now in the rotation with the numbers. He is truly trying to get better every day."

Edwards has scored just 11 points all season, but he is 4-of-7 from the floor, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range.

Odds and ends

Barnes is 8-2 against Florida, and the Vols lead the series 80-58 overall. ... Tennessee is just 26-36 against the Gators in Gainesville. ... The Vols have won nine consecutive league games away from Thompson-Boling Arena, which includes their run last March to the SEC tournament title.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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