Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics
Zakai Zeigler checked into Tennessee’s, 87-53, blowout win over Mississippi State 3:55 into the game, welcomed by a raucous round of applause from the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd.
Inbounding the ball under the Bulldogs’s basket, Zeigler flashed a smile to fellow sophomore Jonas Aidoo as the applause continued, bounced an inbounds pass to Olivier Nkamhoua for a dunk and proceeded to put on a point guard clinic.
Zeigler was marvelous in Tennessee’s annihilation of Mississippi State, tallying 11 points and 10 assists in the lopsided victory.
“He was really good,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of Zeigler. “Thought he saw the floor well. Thought he was really smooth in terms of when the inside-out passes came to him.”
Zeigler was in complete control from his entrance to his exit. The sophomore point guard said he knew that Mississippi State was going to switch ball screens and felt prepared for exactly what the Bulldogs were going to throw at him thanks to six days of preparation around New Years.
The undersized point guard looked as prepared as he felt, weaving in-and-out of defenders all night while creating open shots for his teammates. Zeigler was unfazed by anything Mississippi State threw at him, turning it over just twice to go along with his career-high 10 assists.
“It was just me making the right reads and today everybody was making shots,” Zeigler said. “It was making the right reads and guys making shots.”
The Long Island native’s assessment was as stout as his play. The Vols shooting performance from the field and three-point range was their best of the season. Still, Zeigler was the man that orchestrated Tennessee’s offensive attack and UT wouldn’t have had nearly as many open shots without him.
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The result was Zeigler’s first double-double since his breakout game at the Peach Jam Tournament 18 months ago when he entered Tennessee’s recruiting radar.
“I thought his command of what we needed to do was maybe as good as it’s ever been,” Barnes said. “We had to be good to execute, the way they play and what they make you do. For him to do what he does on the defensive end, then play the kind of floor game he played on the offensive end, is pretty impressive.”
Zeigler’s best sequence of the night came late in the first half. The sophomore point guard drove to the basket, leaping in the air before dropping the ball into the lap of a cutting Julian Phillips who threw down a two-handed dunk as the shot clock expired.
Josiah-Jordan James stole a pass, fired one of his own to Zeigler and finished an alley oop that pushed Tennessee’s first half lead to 26 points.
INJECT IT ALL RIGHT INTO OUR VEINS
? https://t.co/HuI5iL41hP pic.twitter.com/h4I76AbwBC
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) January 4, 2023
Zeigler believes that point guards can get into a rhythm where they know they’re going to have a strong performance early in games but that he didn’t notice it because his focus was on trying “to pick it up on the defensive end.”
The undersized guard didn’t disappoint on the defensive end either, tallying three steals in the victory. Zeigler displays his elite defense nearly every time he steps on the court, but his offensive showing was what made his performance against the Bulldogs elite.
Zeigler getting his teammates involved in addition to hitting shots himself (three-of-five from three-point range) makes for a dangerous Tennessee team.
“That just shows the type of team that we can be,” Zeigler said. “And not even just in the SEC, but in the country. That just shows what we can be and what we know we can be. Because we haven’t been shooting the ball the best, but when our shots are falling and we start feeling ourselves a little bit, I feel like we’re going to carry that on for sure.”