Zeigler transformation transforming Tennessee

Shortly after then-fourth-placed, now second-placed Tennessee’s commanding victory over tenth-placed Texas on Saturday night at the Thompson-Boling Arena, Vols coach Rick Barnes gushed about second point guard Zakai Zeigler.

“What can you say about him?” Barnes said after watching Zeigler’s performance of 22 points, 10 assists, three rebounds and two steals. “I mean he has to be with the best point guards in the country given what he does night after night, consistently.”

Two days later, Barnes spoke to reporters ahead of Monday afternoon’s practice in Tennessee. He had a lot more time to collect himself and come up with a more measured answer.

And… he was still gushing about Zeigler, who was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday.

Vols sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler (Photo: Eakin Howard, Getty)

“I’m not sure there is a guard in the country who has impacted the game as much as he has, especially in the month of January,” Barnes said. “I mean, he was great in every area you could ask of him.”

Zeigler’s sensational performance on Saturday also came against strong competition. One of the most experienced teams in college basketball, Texas boasts an armada of strong senior guards, led by Marcus Carr, who usually inflict seizures on opponents.

From the start, however, there was no question that Zeigler was the best guard on the floor. And at both ends of the floor.

Texas interim coach Rodney Terry — a longtime former Barnes assistant — also praised Zeigler after the game, saying the 5-foot-9 New Yorker was the driving force in Tennessee.

“He makes the guys around him better,” Terry said. “He’s got a bunch of guys around him who can hit the ball, but you have to choose your venom when it comes to how you’re going to protect him in pick and roll situations. You have to try to keep him out of the paint because he does a great job of finding guys, be it on the edge or even for perimeter shots. He Is hard.

“He’s also really annoying in defence [having] lots of activity. He’s a good player.”

Zeigler was one of the biggest factors Terry cited when describing the Vols as contenders for the national championship.

“They have a lot of experience,” Terry said. “You are older. He [Barnes] has guys who can play indoors has a bunch of different guys who can play physically. We’ve always had physical guys who could bounce back and defend [at Texas]. We also had guys who could shoot the ball. We also had a really good point guard in TJ Ford, National Player of the Year. So that was pretty good too.

“Right now he has a point guard who is playing really well and is a really good player. They have all the ingredients to be a Final Four team. I think I said that earlier this year. I thought they were a team that had a chance to be a Final Four team.

Many would look at Zeigler’s build and imagine he’s always been a pure point guard, but his role in high school might be better described as a ball-dominant scoring guard. The Long Islander native averaged 4.6 assists per game during his senior season at Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair, New Jersey, but also averaged more than 20 points. He was also a goalscorer on the AAU circuit.

Simply handling the ball for much of the game doesn’t make anyone a point guard in Barnes’ eyes. His demands on players in this position at both ends of the floor are well known. Certain adjustments are made to accommodate each player’s strengths and weaknesses – Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler, Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner and Kevin Punter are all different – but every little bit of freedom at this position has to be earned. There is Barnes way and no other.

Vols sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler (Photo: Calvin Mattheis, Knoxville News Sentinel)

Zeigler offered zero opposition to the project, and the differences in his game are crystal clear. He’s making passes that he wouldn’t have attempted last season because he wouldn’t have seen them, and that hasn’t detracted from his other strengths. He’s still a really good marksman and all-rounder when it counts. He’s still one of the best fullbacks — arguably the best — in college basketball. He’s still a three-lung player who never seems to tire. He’s still an industrial stimulant for opponents.

Now he’s making his teammates better too.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to him about for the past year to really understand what a point guard does,” Barnes said. “He’s such a team player. Zakai is very selfless. He’s a tough, tenacious competitor who just wants to win. But he really embraced the fact that he wants to play the game differently than he has over the years in terms of being able to kick the ball, he can score the ball but really trying to make his teammates better. I would say it wasn’t just that month, it was something he’s really been working on since we started this team because he knew he had to do that.

Once it clicks for him, and I think it is, I think he sees the court in a very different way than he did. I think his vision that I see has slowed down for him. To see all nine guys on the floor, to see what’s going on.”

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