Tennessee’s Zakai Zeigler hit all the harmonious notes Tuesday about his role, coach Rick Barnes and any fallout from being yanked from the starting lineup.
The Vols’ guard was closing an early chapter of Tennessee’s basketball season. There will be many more before the season’s end. Zeigler and the Vols authored a new one over Thanksgiving weekend, winning the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas in impressive fashion. Tennessee capped the tournament with a determined 64-50 victory over then-No. 3 Kansas.
Their performance was a stark contrast to a 78-66 loss to Colorado on Nov. 13 in Nashville. There was a connection between the different results and it began with Tennessee’s assistant coaches reeling in their boss.
“I have a terrific coaching staff who when we lost that game, they did a good job of keeping me under control because I wanted to kill (the players),” Barnes said after Atlantis. “I felt like how could we let that get away from us like that.”
Zeigler got singled out post-Colorado when Barnes said the sophomore wouldn’t be starting and described his play as “wild.”
“I wasn’t being myself,” Zeigler said of his play against Colorado. “I was into my own head.” He described his postgame conversation with Barnes as “a game-changer” and said he’s content with any role.
“Coach Barnes is going to be Coach Barnes,” Zeigler said. “He’s going to be on us. That’s what he’s supposed to do because he’s our coach.”
Zeigler also said he talked to former UT point guard Lamonte Turner, who is playing professionally in Finland. Via social media, Turner criticized Barnes for benching Zeigler. According to Zeigler, Turner’s advice to him was, “You’ve got to figure it out.”
That’s good counsel for the entire team. The Vols currently are doing their figuring without senior all-purpose leader Josiah-Jordan James, who sat out a fourth consecutive game Wednesday while dealing with knee soreness. Barnes indicated this week it was James’ decision not to play in the Bahamas.
“Yeah, we’re leaving it up to him, Barnes said. “Again, it’s been made clear to him, we want him to feel comfortable. Certainly, we’re not going to ask anybody to play when they don’t feel (comfortable). We just want him to feel good about himself. As much as he’s put into the program, he’ll know when he’s ready.”
James’ absence made the Atlantis championship ever more impressive. It’s also affording more playing time for other players. Freshman Julian Phillips previewed his potential with 25 points and eight rebounds in a 73-66 overtime victory over Southern California in the Bahamas.
“Julian has obviously had to grow up quickly, quicker than maybe we might have thought he would have to,” Barnes said. “But he’s done a good job.”
After Wednesday’s 76-40 victory over McNeese State, Barnes was fixated on a defensive possession and one second regarding Phillips. It was all that separated him and the Vols from forcing a five-second violation.
“If he would’ve played hard for one (more) second,” Barnes said. “That’s where he’s got to continue to grow and understand that.”
No. 13 Tennessee (6-1) has held five of its opponents to 50 or fewer points. Kansas’ 54 points constituted its lowest output in eight years. Barnes is pushing for this chapter to become a narrative.
“We’re just trying to get this team to totally understand their roles,” Barnes said. “It’s a defensive mentality. We have to have it.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.