Zakai Zeigler goes up for a layup against Eastern Kentucky at Thompson-Boling Arena on Dec. 7, 2022.

Zakai Zeigler remembers his first time playing at the Barclays Center in middle school in the early days of the arena. Now, years later, he makes his return to Brooklyn with Tennessee basketball.

“It feels good to be back playing in New York,” Zeigler said. “The Barclays Center is actually a place where I won one of my first tournaments. It feels good to be in college and playing for another chance to win another tournament.”

That tournament was pivotal for Zeigler’s career. He remembers noticing how much bigger the court was and how much running he had to do. He and his teammates also felt the shine of the bright lights of an NBA arena.

“We felt like we were on top of the world,” Zeigler said. “Even though we were just in middle school, we felt like we were NBA players.”

Zeigler also remembers playing at the legendary outdoor court at Dyckman Park, where NBA stars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James have played.

“Playing in Dykman, that was a really fun one,” Zeigler said. “Rucker Park was really big back then, but in my area it’s pretty much Dykman Park. It was just really good to be out there and playing and knowing all the history.”

Though some of Zeigler’s family is in Knoxville now, much of his extended family – including his grandmother and his cousins – will be in attendance on Sunday as the No. 7 Vols take on No. 13 Maryland

But it doesn’t take a deep connection with New York to know that playing there is a big deal. Any opportunity to play in an NBA arena in the Mecca of basketball feels like a big deal.

“I think everybody is pretty excited, just being in an NBA arena, even if it wasn’t New York,” Zeigler said. “Everybody knows the history of the New Jersey Nets and now the Brooklyn Nets. We’re all super pumped about this game.”

Tennessee has already played – and won – some big games this season.

After its embarrassing loss to Colorado in the second week of the season, the Vols handled their non-Power 5 opponents with ease and took care if business in the Battle 4 Atlantis, blowing out Kansas in the championship game.

The Vols now have their toughest stretch of the early season, starting with Maryland on Sunday. Tennessee takes on Arizona on the road next week.

“We’ve been in some big games already, but it’s about getting better right now. It’s tough,” head coach Rick Barnes said in a media availability on Friday. “We play all those games to get us ready for what we know is going to be a brutal January-February once we get into conference play. You hope that through everything that we’ve done from start to finish is going to prepare us for SEC play.”

Maryland (8-1) started off the season unranked but has been a surprise so far this season. Besides a stain on the record from a loss to Nebraska earlier in the week, the Terrapins have been on fire.

With four players averaging double digits, Maryland is well rounded and has an explosive offense, which will be a big test for Tennessee’s seemingly impenetrable defense.

“They can shoot the ball,” Barnes said. “As I watch them now, I would say they’re one of the biggest surprises in college basketball. They’re right there. They do a lot of things that we’re going to have to be ready to defend.”

The Vols have held opponents to 50 points or less in all but two games. Defense has clearly become Tennessee’s identity and it only seems to be getting better as the Vols force turnover after turnover in route to dominant wins.

For Barnes, that isn’t enough. He’s looking for more improvement.

“Every game you look back at, you know there are areas that you can improve in,” Barnes said. “We’ve got to really do a better job contesting shots. We can do a lot of different things based on what each player can do.”

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