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Tennessee Basketball Recruiting: Who the Volunteers are chasing in the class of 2022

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Can Barnes land another elite class?

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

After a few years of some more spotty recruiting success under Head Coach Rick Barnes, Tennessee has hit its stride on the trail. The Vols have now inked two-straight national top-five classes (no. 5 in 2020, no. 2 in 2021), added at least one 5-star player three-straight seasons and signed five overall top-50 players since 2019.

It’s all well and good to sign top classes for college hoops, but Tennessee is also producing NBA draft picks and players. The Vols have six players currently in the League with four (Grant Williams, Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer, Yves Pons) coming since 2019 and two more (Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone) oscillating between the NBA and G-League. Recruits know all that, and it matters perhaps more than any other pitch teams can offer.

Now, let’s talk about which recruits Tennessee is chasing this cycle.

COMMITTED/ ENROLLED

BJ Edwards - Guard - 6-foot-3, 170 lbs

Edwards is a 4-star point guard from Knoxville Catholic high school and the lone commitment for UT’s ‘22 class as of this writing. He committed in early July but was helping recruit other players in this class in June. I dig that. More on that later.

Per 247, he’s the fourth-ranked player in Tennessee and 11th-ranked point guard nationally. He’s also the latest in the line of highly-rated guards to land with the Vols. He won Tennessee’s Mr. Basketball award for his division last season, and, oh yeah, he plays AAU ball for Bobby Maze.

If you read my hoops writing with any regularity, you’ve probably seen me mention this before: there’s quite the pipeline from the BMAZE Elite team to Tennessee that’s been built over the last several years — Drew Pember, Jaden Springer, Huntley-Hatfield, Tamba, with perhaps others of which I’m unaware. It’s difficult to overstate the value/importance/impact of that relationship.

Back to Edwards — I’ll be interested to see how his game evolves his senior year because there’s likely to be a Kennedy-Chandler sized hole at the lead guard position after this season. Edwards plays point guard for Catholic, but Josiah-Jordan James and Jaden Springer also played point guard for their high schools, too, so I’ve become a bit reluctant in assuming any player labeled a PG by recruiting services will end up filling that role in college.

But watching his film, Edwards looks suited to be a primary ball handler and plenty able to initiate offense for the Vols. He’s got a pretty tight handle, good vision and has averaged five or more assists in both his sophomore and his junior seasons at Catholic. He’s got an advanced understanding of operating in the pick-and-roll and reads defenses well while subsequently attacking based on how the defense is playing him. I’m not gonna do much analyzing of Edwards here, but there’s just a couple quick things I wanted to show y’all.

High-school highlight tapes don’t usually include a bevy of defensive highlights, especially for guards who aren’t volley-balling shots into the crowd, so it’s not as easy to get a feel for the player’s prowess without access to actual film.

Still, here’s a play I happened across of Edward guarding incoming Vol PG Kennedy Chandler during Chandler’s time at Briarcrest in Memphis. He stays with Chandler the duration, moving his feet while keeping his chest with Chandler but his arms up. Great defense and it ends up a blocked shot.


Zakai Zeigler - Guard - 5-foot-10, 165 lbs

UPDATE 8/27: Things moved pretty fast with Tennessee and Zeigler. As noted below, Tennessee coaches saw him at Peach Jam in late July, he came for a visit on Monday, August 23rd and then officially announced he signed with the Vols AND reclassified to enroll early as a part of the 2021 recruiting class.

From what I understand, he’s been enrolled for a few days but chose to keep things quiet. It’s looking more and more like Tennessee might just be shooting for the stars with the ‘22 class, and doing some work early in case it ends up just missing out on its main targets. The Vols are now at the 14-scholarship limit with just two seniors, John Fulkerson (sixth-year graduate) and Victor Bailey. But, since the transfer portal has become such a factor, there’s bound to be turnover and more scholarships opening up after next season. (END UPDATE)

So, after some helpful insight from the readers here at RTT, we’ve decided to update this post whenever players Tennessee is after commit as well as whenever we hear any new names that the staff is recruiting. Zakai Zeigler is one of those new names.

I’m going to be upfront — when I was originally writing this story, I was a bit worried because this class seems to have a considerable high-risk/ high-reward construction, and I wasn’t seeing many names who could be reasonably assumed as contingency plans for the staff should the high-risk side of that equation come to fruition. In retrospect, that concern was premature, because this staff has shown repeatedly it’s always recruiting players that us unconnected folk have no idea about.

News broke late Tuesday night, via 247’s Grant Ramey, that Zeigler had set a commitment date for this Friday, August 27th, after being in Knoxville for a visit Monday, August 23rd.

He’s currently a recruit for the 2022 class, but Ziegler said there’s a chance he reclassifies.

“I could reclassify up and go 2021, if me and my family (make that decision) and that’s what’s best for me, athletically and academically,” Zeigler said. “As of right now I’m still 2022.”

“Once word got around that I could reclassify up to 2021, they showed 2021 interest [in him reclassifying],” Zeigler added “And we started speak on that more.”

Zeigler would be the third 2022 recruit to reclassify to the 2021 class, joining forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and center Handje Tamba.

If my math is correct, Tennessee currently has 13 scholarship players, and it’s been assumed that the Vols would leave that last spot open for some, perhaps previously unforeseen, development. You know, like when Santiago Vescovi came out of the blue, joined the Vols 2019 recruiting class in late November, practiced with the team for four days, then started at point guard and hit six 3-pointers against LSU.

Watch Zeigler cook below:

He’s an interesting case as a prospect, mostly because he was pretty widely slept on until he stole the show at the Nike EYBL Peach Jam in late July. Zeigler’s team lost in the tournament’s final, but it wasn’t for his lack of trying. The young guard from New York was reportedly shooting out of his mind, going a staggering 7-8 from behind the 3-point line. He dropped 23 total points, added 10 assists, three steals, three rebounds and didn’t turn the ball over once.

Rick Barnes and assistants Rod Clark and Mike Schwartz were in attendance, and apparently Zeigler got their attention.

“I started hearing from (Tennessee) a couple days after Peach Jam,” Zeigler said via 247. “Coach (Mike) Schwartz texted me. From there, I just went with them, started talking with them more.”

Folks who’ve seen Zeigler play live are quick to warn you not to let his small stature cloud your opinion of him — he’s apparently relentless guarding the ball.

“I can play defense,” Zeigler said of what he’s heard from Tennessee. “I can pick up 94 (feet) despite my height. I make up for that on the defensive end. I can make the shots, shoot the ball and run the team. And I’m a true point guard.”

(If you’re not familiar with Peach Jam, the tournament’s just filled up with high-level prospects. In fact, two other players Tennessee is recruiting, Brandon Miller and Cason Wallace, also won awards Miller got the defensive MVP, while Wallace made the all-tournament second team.


MISSES

Jalen Hood-Schifino Committed to Indiana on 8/24/21

Julian Phillips Committed to LSU on 10/8/21

KyeRon Lindsay Committed to UNLV on 9/22/21

Brandon Miller Eliminated Tennessee on 9/3/21

Dillon Mitchell Committed to Texas on 10/25/21

Jett Howard Committed to Michigan on 10/13/21

Ernest Udeh Committed to Kansas on 10/20/21

Chandler Jackson Committed to FSU on 10/29/21

Cason Wallace Committed to UK on 11/7/21


REMAINING TARGETS


1. Yohan Traore - Post - 6-foot-10, 225 lbs

UPDATE 10/8: I’m a bit late on this one, but two-ish weeks ago, 247 analyst Travis Branham posted a crystal ball prediction for Traore ending up at Memphis.

via 247

Branham’s missed on just one of his CBs this year, and that “7,” indicates he’s reasonably confident in this one, too.

Memphis and coach Penny Hardaway is put together a really nice class for the ‘21 cycle, including former overall No. 1 player in the country Emoni Bates and 5-star center Jalen Duran. If Penny could figure out how to, ya know, coach, the Tigers could be dangerous the next few years.

UPDATE 8/27: Two updates on Traore today. First, he was updated on the Rivals’ rankings and saw a SERIOUS jump. He’s now listed as a 5-star and the No. 4 overall player in the country. He’s had a fantastic summer, and I’d expect him to get a significant bump in the 247 rankings, too, whenever they update. He’s looking more and more like an immediate difference maker, and he also seems like he’d be a perfect fit in Barnes’ offense. Alright, second, Traore also released a top-10, and the Vols are included.

Texas was thought to be a contender here, and they’re apparently no longer in consideration, which is certainly good news. LSU is the one I’d watch, and obviously Juwan Howard and Michigan are a definite threat, and so is Penny at Memphis. No real idea what happens, but Tennessee’s in good shape. (END UPDATE)

Traore is one of just a few traditional post players that Tennessee is recruiting in this class. That’s understandable considering Tennessee added three players 6-9 or taller in the ‘21 group. But Barnes has definitely missed on some post player evaluations: Zach Kent, Derrick Walker, DJ Burns and Drew Pember, with the jury still out on Uros Plavsic. So, who knows how Tennessee’s frontcourt shakes out in the next couple seasons and which current players shape up as contributors.

Yohan is a west-coast prospect — he’s from Glendale, AZ, and is listed as the state’s sixth-best player along with carrying a national 67 rank. 247 ranks schools of interest from cool to warm to hot, and Texas is the only school not listed as cool — it’s listed as warm. But he’s showing offers from the elites: Gonzaga, Michigan, Houston, Kansas, LSU, Arkansas, Texas Tech, etc., etc.

The Vols went west, like all the way west, to California, to sign Jahmai Mashack in the last class, but the with all due respect to Mashack, the competition for Traore’s signature is likely going to be considerably more difficult.

Tennessee’s been working Traore for some time now — he reportedly got an offer from the staff in the spring — while most of the other heavyweights’ offers have come more recently after they watched him excel at various camps this summer. So, in theory, that works in UT’s favor, right? But in today’s CBB landscape, LSU’s checks always clear, and Gonzaga offering in January isn’t much different than Gonzaga offering in August.

It’s been so long since the Vols have deployed a high-level, traditional, 6-10 center that I’m not even sure how it would look. But Traore isn’t the old-school, brute-force post who plods up and down the court. His skillset looks malleable enough to work in a variety of systems. He’s the ideal five man for an NBA-type offense like Gonzaga’s because he’s got range enough to not hurt the spacing and can effectively screen and roll with his frame and burst. He could get up and down with teams like ‘Bama and Arkansas but he could also hit the elbow jumper and be an offensive hub in the high post in Tennessee’s system..

From the tidbits I’ve seen here and there, it sounds like the coaches thinks they’ve positioned themselves well. I haven’t seen where he’s got a trip to Knoxville planned yet, but getting him to campus on a visit will be critical. Also, obligatory: he’s French, and the Vols are going to have at least one French player on the team for five-straight seasons once Traore enrolls (Pons, Quentin Diboundje). That could mean a little something, and it could mean absolutely nothing. My gut says Tennessee loses out here, to LSU, Michigan or Gonzaga.


Tennessee might get a few of these guys, and it might get none. The Vols also tend to have things working with players that nobody in the media is wise to, like Vescovi and Diboundje.