Tennessee freshman guard Zakai Zeigler shook off a miss, walked back to the line and drained a free throw under pressure.
The Vols needed it. Tennessee, which had led by as many as 21 points at halftime over No. 14 Arkansas on March 5, could do nothing but watch as its lead dwindled to two with 14 seconds remaining. Zeigler, who was a week removed from learning of the loss of his family home in New York City following a fire, was calm and collected in crunch time.
The make gave his team enough to, at the very least, guarantee overtime.
Arkansas’ J.D. Notae took the ball down the court and passed to Stanley Umude, who rose and misfired on a 3-point attempt. In to grab the rebound – and to take the ensuing foul – was 5-foot-9 Zeigler, who drained another free throw to put Arkansas to bed and cement the Vols as a 2-seed in the SEC Tournament.
That sequence was a microcosm of what Tennessee was getting with Zeigler when he stepped foot on campus some seven months ago. Zeigler would tell you he’s not surprised with his freshman campaign at the University of Tennessee, but everybody else sure was.
Just ask head coach Rick Barnes, who following the Vols’ first SEC Title victory dating back to 1979 revealed his first thoughts when learning Zakai Zeigler had committed to the Vols in August of 2021.
“Really and truly, we thought we were going to redshirt Zakai.”
Why Rick Barnes couldn’t redshirt Zakai Zeigler
Following Tennessee’s win over Arkansas, Zeigler was named to the 2022 SEC All-Freshman Team and the SEC All-Defensive Team.
It’s that last point in Zeigler’s game that stuck out for Barnes. He realized almost immediately that the freshman – the one that should be a high school senior – could defend at a high, SEC-caliber level. “Yeah, the way he guarded. Right off the bat, his defense (stood out).” Barnes said.
Zeigler backs that up on the stat sheet. His 1.8 steals per game are among the top percentile in the country, and Zeigler sits at No. 5 in the nation in steal percentage – the likelihood a player will record a steal per possession – at 4.75% per Kenpom. Zeigler and Coppin State’s Nendah Tarke are the only freshmen in the country in the top 30 per this metric.
Barnes also saw flashes in Zeigler’s offensive potential. “I would have told you that I think he is the best shooter on our team.” Barnes said following Tennessee’s win over Texas A&M Sunday.
And as of late, that statement can be backed up too. For the overwhelming majority of his possessions on the hardwood, Zeigler has not played or looked like a freshman – he is far from scared when it comes to attacking the rim and putting points on the board.
Twice this season has Zeigler scored 18 points. One such instance came against North Carolina after dropping just seven points on four shots against Villanova the day prior. Despite playing behind the former five-star prospect and highly anticipated point guard prospect in Kennedy Chandler, Zeigler was playing legitimate minutes on the court. And the true freshman wasn’t just coasting – Zeigler belonged in the rotation in those moments.
That’s when Tennessee started to realize that Zeigler wasn’t satisfied riding the bench all season.
And it seemed like Zeigler was just getting better as the games were checked off. By the end of conference play, Zeigler was shooting a solid 36.2% from 3-point range.
Zeigler has natural talent, but it’s his work ethic that has stuck out to Barnes as the season winds to a close.
“Every time I walk through our practice facility, whatever time of day when we were done, he was in there working,” Barnes said. “And we kept telling him some things he had to work on, and he is a tough guy.”
“ … I think Josiah and Santi have told those guys, you know, Coach is going to tell you how he feels and don't take it personal … Just listen to him. Sometimes, probably more in practice than in a game, I get emotional with them because I don't want to see mistake after mistake after mistake, and I can stop it. I can't during the game, but right off the bat, you knew he had the DNA that this guy is going to play.”
Zeigler having that DNA has paid off for Tennessee. Take away those free throws and that crucial rebound against Arkansas and Tennessee perhaps has a tougher hike to the SEC mountaintop. Take away a pair of 18-point performances off the bench and it’s a lot of the same discourse.
Where Tennessee is heading next after an SEC Championship is an unknown. One thing is clear, however – Tennessee is going to look back and appreciate not redshirting Zakai Zeigler.