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Zakai Zeigler has arrived, and it’s a big deal for Tennessee’s rotation

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina vs Tennessee Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference 24 hours can make. Tennessee looked like they didn’t belong on the floor against Villanova, and then turned around and dominated North Carolina on the very next day. A big reason why was the play of a freshman point guard, and not the one we’ve all been hyping up for the last month.

It was Zakai Zeigler — a player who had no significant offers just six months ago — a player that should still be a senior in high school. A true diamond in the rough, Zeigler exploded onto the scene this year at Peach Jam, dominating on the floor while surrounded by higher ranked prospects. That one performance was enough to earn him an offer from Tennessee and a handful of others, and things came together quickly for him to be able to reclassify and join the Volunteers this year.

It wasn’t exactly clear what his immediate role would be. After all, he was a three-star prospect joining a deep team when he still should be in high school. Some speculated that this could be a redshirt season to simply get his legs under him. But that’s pretty clearly not the case.

That decision, whether or not to play him early, has been determined on the practice floor. You never know how a player is going to react in a completely new setting, especially one that came in a year early.

“Every game, he’s earned it right onto the court,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said on Sunday. “He has. I think he’s a smart player. I think he’s adjusting to college basketball. I think he’s, what four games in. And two of them are against two outstanding basketball teams, where they are big, strong teams.”

Those big strong teams didn’t intimidate Zeigler. The New York native had his official coming out party on Sunday, helping to provide a big spark while Josiah-Jordan James was sidelined. Zeigler was fearless, driving the lane, firing away three-pointers — he ended up as Tennessee’s leading scorer on the day with 18 points.

“He’s very confident player,” Barnes said. “We’ve always had confidence from the time he got on campus. Within a week, the strides he made early, we knew we could count on him. I’m always kidding with him — he can’t do this, he can’t do that. And he looks at me and says we’ll see. But we’ve never had a lack of confidence in him.”

It’s easy to see why.

Zeigler shot 7-10 from the field, including 3-5 from deep. He added five assists, settling in and looking really comfortable running the offense. Perhaps most notably though, he did it alongside of both Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi for a stretch that really seemed to put the Tar Heels away. Tennessee’s three point guards were on the floor together, giving the Vols three different instigators to spark moves to the bucket. It was an interesting wrinkle that we’re sure to see more of going forward.

The concern leaving the Villanova game was that Tennessee was going to be too reliant on Kennedy Chandler this year. While that still could be possible, Zeigler just proved that Barnes has another capable point guard on the roster. That’s a really nice development — one that I’m not sure anyone saw coming this early in the season.