Photo via Tennessee Athletics
Zakai Zeigler didn’t know what was wrong with his knee when he collapsed to the floor of Thompson-Boling Arena in the opening minutes of Tennessee’s win over Arkansas last week, but he knew the severity of the injury.
Rick Barnes said afterwards that when Zeigler stays down long, you know it’s serious. Even before being diagnosed with a torn ACL, the sophomore point guard was thinking ahead to how he could help his team while injured.
“I was just thinking how could I be as positive to the team as possible,” Zeigler said Wednesday. “I knew once going down it was going to be a pretty bad injury. I wasn’t sure at the time what it would be but I was just thinking how can I help the guys no matter what the situation, how can I stay positive.”
A torn ACL is a very serious injury which requires months of rehab before returning to the court. Modern medicine has made the timeframe shorter but it still often varies. Alabama point guard Jahvon Quinerly tore his ACL in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season and didn’t return to the court until a few weeks into this season.
“As of right now I’m not really 100% sure but I plan on being back next season before we start,” Zeigler said of his timetable.
While the injury has been ‘tough’ on the energy leader of the Tennessee basketball team, he’s looking at it with a positive mindset and remains a key part of the team as the Vols open postseason play at the SEC Tournament this week.
What can Zeigler bring to the team from the bench now that he can’t play?
“I would just say staying positive, talking to them as much as possible, letting them know what I see on the sideline because this is a whole ‘nother ball game looking at the game from the sideline than on the court,” Zeigler said. “You see more things. You see all 10 guys on the floor really easily. I would just say letting everyone know what I see on the court and staying positive. Trying to help them in any situation.”
“He’s been great,” assistant coach Gregg Polinsky said. “Having him around I think is really a positive for our group. He just has an infectious — not only his play on the court — but his personality. And I think he’s handling it about as well as he could.”
Tennessee put a complete performance together against Arkansas and defeated the Razorbacks by double digits after Zeigler exited with an injury in the game’s opening moments. The Vols played well for 35 minutes before struggling late and losing at Auburn to close the regular season.
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After a poor defensive performance against the Tigers, Polinsky believes Tennessee has missed its point guard on the defensive end of the court more than the offensive end. Where Tennessee missed Zeigler offensively against Auburn was in late game situations where the Vols settled for one-on-one offensive isolations.
Tennessee isn’t built to play like that, but Zeigler’s absence highlights that reality. Avoiding settling for that late in games will be important for the Vols down the stretch.
“Awareness,” Polinsky said. “Address it. Again, I think we have a mature team. A group that understands that when we’re poppin’ the ball around, when we’re getting good movement, when we’re executing — we grade out screening and when we’re screening, we’ve got guys that are smart enough without the ball in their hands. Coach puts in plenty of good offense for us to run and if we execute it and the ball doesn’t stick with one or two guys, then generally we have success.”
After watching nearly two games from the sideline, Zeigler is liking what he’s seen from his teammates regarding their mindset and fight.
“I would say the fight never stopped no matter what it was,” Zeigler said. “No matter if it was me going down, it wasn’t alright we have to have Z’s back, it was we still have to win the game. I would say that is my biggest thing. I like that all the guys had all their fight in them and everyone stepped up when they needed to.”
Tennessee opens postseason play at Bridgestone Arena Thursday afternoon in Nashville. The Vols will face either South Carolina or Ole Miss at approximately 3:30 p.m. ET.