Moments after then-fourth-ranked, now-second-ranked Tennessee’s comfortable win over 10th-ranked Texas on Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, Vols coach Rick Barnes gushed over sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler.
“What can you say about him?” Barnes said after watching Zeigler’s 22-point, 10-assist, three-rebound, two-steal performance. “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, consistently doing it.”
Two days later, Barnes spoke with reporters before Tennessee’s Monday afternoon practice. He had much more time to collect himself and present a more measure response.
And … he still gushed over Zeigler, who earlier Monday was named SEC Player of the Week.
“I’m not sure there’s a guard in the country that has impacted the game as much as he has, especially in the month of January,” Barnes said. “I mean, he has been terrific, every area that you could ask him to be.”
Zeigler’s sensation Saturday performance came against stiff competition, too. Texas is one of the most experienced teams in college basketball, and it has an armada of strong senior guards led by Marcus Carr that usually gives opponents fits.
As soon as the game started, though, there was never any doubt that Zeigler was the best guard on the floor. And on both ends of the floor.
Interim Texas head coach Rodney Terry — a longtime former Barnes assistant — praised Zeigler after the game, too, saying the 5-foot-9 New York native was the force driving Tennessee.
“He’s making the guys around him better,” Terry said. “He’s got a group of guys around him that can score the ball, but you’ve got to pick your poison in terms of how you’re gonna guard him in pick-and-roll situations. You’ve got to try to keep him out of the paint, because he does a great job of finding guys, whether it be at the rim or for perimeter shots, as well. He’s tough.
“He plays really pesky on defense, as well, in terms of [having] a lot of activity. He’s a good player.”
Zeigler was one of the biggest factors cited by Terry when he described the Vols as national championship contenders.
“They’ve got a lot of experience,” Terry said. “They’re older. He [Barnes] has got guys that can play inside, a number of different guys that can play physical. We always had physical guys that could rebound and defend [at Texas]. We also had guys that could shoot the ball. We also had a really good point guard in T.J. Ford, the national player of the year. So that was pretty good, as well.
“Right now he’s got a point guard that’s playing really well and is a really good player. They have all the ingredients of being a Final Four team. I think I said that early in the year. I thought they were a team that had a chance to be a Final Four team.”
Many would look at Zeigler’s stature and imagine he’s always been a pure point guard, but his role in high school probably could be better described as ball-dominant scoring guard. The Long Island native averaged 4.6 assists per game his final season at Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair, New Jersey, but he also averaged more than 20 points. He also was a scorer on the AAU circuit.
Simply handling the ball for much of the game makes no one a point guard in Barnes’ eyes. His demands from players at that position on both ends of the floor are well known. Certain tweaks are made to align with each player’s strengths and weaknesses — Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler, Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner and Kevin Punter are all different — but every small sliver of freedom at that position must be earned. There is Barnes’ way and no other.
Zeigler has offered zero resistance to the project, and the differences in his game are crystal clear. He’s making passes 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 shooter and all-around scorer when needed. He’s still one of the best perimeter defenders — arguably the best — in college basketball. He’s still a player with three lungs who never seems to tire. He’s still an industrial-grade irritant for opponents.
Now he’s also making his teammates better.
“It’s something we talked to him about from last year on, really starting to understand what a point guard does,” Barnes said. “He’s such a team player. Zakai is very unselfish. He’s a tough, hard-nosed competitor that just wants to win. But he has really embraced the fact that he does want to play the game different than he had through the years, in terms of he can shoot the ball, he can score the ball, but really trying to make his teammates better. I would say it’s not just been this month, it’s been something he’s really worked on from the time that we started with this team, knowing that he needed to do that.
Once it starts to click for him, and I think it is, I think he’s seeing the court in a whole different way than he has. I think his vision, seeing it, I think it has slowed down for him. Seeing all nine guys on the floor, seeing what’s going on.”