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Three Things: North Carolina

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

Just a day after one of Tennessee’s worst performances in recent memory, the Vols laid a 89-72 beatdown on the North Carolina Tar Heels. Here are three things.

ZZ Pop

The Vols’ most important player Sunday was one of its youngest. And definitely its smallest, too.

Zakai Zeigler, or ZZ Pop as I’m gonna be calling him from now on (a play on the band “ZZ Top,” Zakai’s age and the way he can apparently “pop off,” scoring the ball unexpectedly) probably can’t believe how much his life has changed in the last six-ish months.

He went from a 3-star recruit with zero Division 1 offers back in the early summer to cooking up Michael Jordan’s alma mater and one of college basketball’s premier, long-standing powerhouse programs — North Carolina Tar Heels — for a career-high 18 points that ended up being almost the exact mathematical difference in the win for Tennessee.

Zeigler shot a silly 70 percent from the field overall, including three makes out of five attempts from 3-point range. As delightful and dope and kick-ass as it was watching the smallest guy on the court shoot like he was a bulletproof giant, it wasn’t the most exciting conclusion I drew from his game. This is naturally subjective, but for me the real takeaway was Zeigler’s 5:0 assist-to-turnover ratio coupled with the amount of possessions Tennessee played with him, Santiago Vescovi and Kennedy Chandler on the floor together.

Looking back on last season, one could argue that Tennessee’s lack of a consistent, lead-guard facilitator was the team’s most glaring weakness. But now, the Vols have three capable choices to run the team either in a pinch initiated by some foul trouble or for strategic reasons based off a scouting report on the other team’s tendencies. Vescovi’s still more suited to play off the ball, and I still figure it’s unlikely Zeigler has a whole big buncha multiple-assist, zero-turnover games, but Sunday’s game reinforced the idea that Tennessee’s in a much better position at point guard this season than it was last season.

Vols won the battle on the boards by leaps and (re)bounds

Tennessee’s been a pretty poor defensive rebounding team for, well, quite some time now. Here’s just a taste — the Vols’ national ranking in defensive rebounding percentage, via Team Rankings:

  • ‘20-’21: 161st
  • ‘19-’20: 191st
  • ‘18-’19: 230th
  • ‘17-’18: 245th

Now, being a good team on the boards isn’t the end-all, be-all key to wins that some coaches make it sound like when you listen to pre-or-post game media sessions, but there’s no denying that getting an offensive board gets that team a bonus possession and often leads to another shot attempt.

Tennessee didn’t massively out-rebound the Tar Heels quite how my subheading suggested, but I like to make those clever or clever-adjacent when I can, so I exaggerated some for effect. The Vols collected 38 total boards to UNC’s 30 and gave up just five second-chance points on the Tarheels’ five offensive rebounds. Against Villanova, Tennessee surrendered 14 offensive rebounds, and the Wildcats converted those extra possessions into 13 points.

The Vols were without their best rebounder from last season, Josiah-Jordan James, against North Carolina and still managed to out-rebound their opponent, thanks in large part to the guards. Vescovi, Chandler and Zeigler combined for 16 of Tennessee’s 38 rebounds, with just over half of them (nine) coming from Vescovi. The third-year guard’s doing a bit of everything for the Vols this year as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, by the per-game averages, along with charting out as Tennessee’s third-best defender.

Can’t de-ny the Vols’ de-fense

The Vols’ offense was outta sync against Villanova, but the defense played reasonably well given the outrageous proficiency with which Jay Wright’s team scores the ball. Well, against UNC, the Vols put together another solid defensive game, and this time Tennessee’s offense carried its weight, resulting in a resounding win for UT.

The Tar Heels are sporting the 14th-best adjusted offensive efficiency even after shooting just 40-percent from the field against the Vols and missing numerous easy looks around the basket and some open shots from distance. Caleb Love and RJ Davis, two of UNC’s five players averaging double-digit scoring, combined to shoot just 6 of 19 from the field.

Vescovi, Chandler and Zeigler’s defense at the point-of-attack was good all game, and I talked about one such occasions on in a Twitter thread.

Zeigler gets all up into the UNC ball handler, and he maybe even gets beat off the dribble. But then Victor Bailey, of all people, makes a dig like he’s going after the steal but backs off in anticipation of the UNC player kicking the ball back out to the wing. He ends up getting the steal and an easy layup in the other end.

This next play starts with Vescovi HOUNDING the Tarheel guard. He’s moving his feet and staying in front of the ball handler without fouling. (You’re looking at the second tweet for this example.)

UNC goes pick-and-roll, but watch Zeigler’s help defense. His man is in the near corner, but he tags over to the roll man in time and pressures the big man into hastily putting it on the floor instead of seeing the open man in the corner.

Tennessee’s pretty consistently one of the better defensive teams in the country, but going into this year, I was worried how the Vols would adjust to life without Yves Pons and if the guards would be up to the task without Pons in the middle erasing on-ball, defensive miscues. They’ve done a pretty good job so far.