Photo by Ian Cox/ Tennessee Athletics
BATON ROUGE, La. — Tennessee basketball faced plenty of adversity in its two game road trip. Coming off a disappointing loss at Kentucky, Tennessee was down two starters and trailing by nine in the first half at Mississippi State Tuesday.
They were down a different starter and had multiple players dealing with illness Saturday at LSU. But the end the result was the same, Tennessee jumped on the Tigers early and coasted the rest of the way as the Big Orange capped off the successful week on the road with a, 77-56, victory at LSU.
“First of all, really proud of our guys,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said postgame. “We have a bunch of guys under the weather right now. Santi (Vescovi) was not feeling good. Did very little in practice yesterday and tried. Julian (Phillips) wasn’t feeling great. Obviously got some other guys, Uros, other guys that haven’t felt well. Really proud of them, the way they came in and fought through it.”
There are few cliches used more in sports than the “next man up mentality” but Tennessee has had to lean on it all season. Senior leaders Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi have both missed time with injuries and Uros Plavsic and Tyreke Key were both sidelined in games this week.
Few teams, practice what they preach about the “next man up mentality” as much as Tennessee. Rick Barnes’ deepest team in eight seasons in Knoxville has been on display all season and it was again at LSU.
“It definitely changed the plan,” Zakai Zeigler said of starting at LSU. “Like I said earlier, it is always next man up. Everybody is always ready. Nobody on our team has to get ready because we are always ready. That is what I would say about that.”
Tennessee’s been able to overcome absences so well this season in large part due to its balance. Five Vols average within three points of leading scorer Santiago Vescovi and that was on display against LSU.
Barnes was “proud” of how Vescovi played on the defensive end on a day he was feeling poorly. And in a rare performance where he didn’t light up the points column, there were plenty of players to pick him up.
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Josiah-Jordan James was a point shy of his career-high, tallying 22 points and raining in four triples. Freshman Julian Phillips hit two triples and scored 10 points despite battling foul trouble. Barnes said postgame that he believes the freshman is hitting his stride after he scored in double figures for the third time in four games.
In a new role coming off the bench, Tyreke Key was aggressive hunting his shot and added 10 points of his own while also sparking Tennessee’s rebounding efforts by snagging seven boards.
“That is exactly what we need him to be,” Zeigler said of Key. “If he is doing that, that just makes us that much better as a team. We will need him to definitely continue to do that. I know he will. It just makes us as a team that much better.”
Even freshman Tobe Awaka and Jahmai Mashack who have seen minutes dwindle in recent weeks, stepped into a bigger role in Baton Rouge and thrived, combining for seven points in 23 quality minutes.
However, the glue that makes the balance work is Zeigler who was fantastic again running the point. The sophomore dished out 10 assists with just one turnover while tallying his second double-double this month.
“It’s neat because a year and a half into his college career and the way he has worked to continue to learn the game, that’s what he’s doing,” Barnes said. “He’s going to continue to get better-and-better each time out.”
The one downside of Tennessee’s supreme balance is its lack of a go-to scorer. Zeigler — who is averaging 7.3 assists in seven SEC games — and his ability to get other players involved helps mitigate those concerns.
After a dissapointing loss against rival Kentucky, Tennessee secured two road wins. They overcame adversity doing so and the Vols’ balance was a major reason why they could.