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Three Things: South Carolina

Some stuff on Zakai Zeigler, Tennessee’s dynamic shot selection and what to make of Justin Powell and BHH’s struggles

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee got back in the win column Tuesday by dropping South Carolina 66-46. Here are three things.

Zakai Zeigler is playing like Zakai BIGler

During the preseason, and for much of the season thus far, one of the most common narratives surrounding Vol hoops has been about Kennedy Chandler. Yuh know — how Tennessee’s success is tethered to his development and emergence as a NBA lottery-pick butterfly from his 5-star high-school prospect cocoon. The Vols should go as far as Chandler can take them, right?

Well, Tennessee’s found that a “true,” point guard, in and of itself, wasn’t the cure-all for the offensive stagnations that have plagued the offense for at least the last two seasons. Or, at least, that it hasn’t been so far.

The paradigm shift in UT’s offensive approach — going from a mid-range jump-shooting team last year to one more focused on shooting 3s now — has backfired as the guys are mired in a team-wide shooting slump. Though the shooting percentages bounced back against the Gamecocks, Tennessee’s still hitting just 39 percent of its shots and 28 percent of its 3s since the Arizona game. In fact, for the season, the Vols are ranked 85th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 143rd in effective field-goal percentage and 237th in 3-point shooting accuracy. So, at what point do we say that Tennessee isn’t in a slump and instead, just a poor shooting team? I reckon that’s another topic for another day.

This section, specifically, is about Zakai Zeigler. Zeigler is Tennessee’s former 3-star prospect whose only really notable offers were from Minnesota, New Mexico State, Southern Illinois and Wichita State prior to earning a Vols’ offer at the Peach Jam last summer.

Tennessee’s coaches came away so enamored that they not only offered Zeigler a scholarship but also the option to reclassify and join the team a year early. He accepted, and I was skeptical. A shocker: I was wrong.

Zeigler’s season averages won’t wow you — seven points, 2.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.4 turnovers on 39/31/78 shooting splits in 18 minutes — but against South Carolina, we saw Tennessee make a clear shift back away from the gratuitous chucking from deep to hunt more high-percentage looks closer to the rim. That let Zeigler’s fearless/ gritty/ nifty game shine.

In fact, the box score shows Zeigler’s best game of the year: 11 points on 5/8 shooting with four assists, four steals and just two turnovers in 23 minutes. He was the second player off the bench for Tennessee behind Uros Plavsic and made the Gamecocks feel him from the moment he checked in. His first step is good enough to get most defenders immediately on his back hip, and though his height puts him at a disadvantage near the hoop, we saw him seeking out the contact and finishing through it — which is something this supposed hard-nosed team hasn’t exactly excelled at so far this season.

The Vols go with high ball-screen action — which if you watch the other players, looks to be happening on its own instead of as part of a specific set play — and Zeigler’s immediately got a mismatch after South Carolina switches. Zakai gives the (Game)cock one cross over to the middle of the floor and makes a beeline for the paint. He looks like he should be wearing a helmet and pads the way he dumps his shoulder right into the defender’s chest. Like a pinball, he just bounces off the contact and hits the layup. This is the kinda strong and rugged play you expect him to make when you hear the guy talk. He’s the team’s smallest player who has the voice of an old-school soul singer.

We pretty much have to talk about ZZ’s defense, and I reckon this next play is as good a segue as any. Tennessee gets a transition layup off a Zeigler steal, but it fits into this section, too, because of the way Zakai seeks out the bump as he goes up for the bucket.

ZZ’s looked up to the task on defense pretty much from jump street, and it’s probably fair to say he’s been better on the ball and in passing lanes than we expected. Zeigler’s one of four Vols averaging at least 1.5 steals per-game, and he actually leads the team in swipes on a per-minute basis (3.6). You see the requisite anticipation above: He sees the SC guard start to panic amidst the double-team pressure and darts into the passing lane. On the other end, again, it’s Zakai initiating the bump, absorbing it and finishing for two.

The same intrepidness it takes to constantly go at players bigger than him is the seed of his defensive prowess, too. When he signed with Tennessee, Rick Barnes noted that he was a pest guarding the ball, and we’ve seen him make life uncomfortable for bigger guards pretty much all year. But against South Carolina, he was more pestilence than pest.

Forgive my awful jump cuts, but I wanted to stitch these plays together because they happened consecutively and it just made sense to link them up.

Watch the off hand of the USC dribblers — that arm extension is almost a reflex, like when your hand automatically recoils after touching a hot stove eye. That happens when a defender gets in your space, and if the refs wanted, they coulda called it a foul. The move is legal to an extent in the NBA, in the interest of gearing the rules to favor scoring points, but in CBB it’s illegal even though it’s not called regularly. Each of the four possessions above ended in a South Carolina missed shot or turnover.

I’m excited to see Zeigler matched up with Kentucky’s TyTy Washington this weekend. Washington’s coming off that 17-assist performance against UGA and just notched his third-straight SEC Freshman of the Week award Monday. Let’s hope we get just some of this same disagreeable disruption from Zakai.

Selective Shot Selection

I talked about this a bit earlier, but against South Carolina, there was a pretty evident change in Tennessee’s shot selection. In total this year, 43 percent of UT’s shots this year have been 3s, and it’s converting just 32 percent of those looks. Out of 71 teams that shoot 3s more frequently than the Vols, just 16 shoot them at a less-accurate clip. A bit further: there’s six players on the roster who average at least three attempts from deep for the year, but nobody’s shooting better than 39 percent. Those figures help along the multi-minute scoring droughts that are giving Vol fans PTSD flashbacks of the Cuonzo Martin days.

The difference wasn’t huge on Tuesday, but it was still definitely there. UT took 55 total shots against South Carolina and 21 were from deep. That maths out to 38 percent and makes it a five-percent decrease from the season’s mean. Outside of Santiago Vescovi’s nine long-range attempts, nobody shot more than four 3s, and they all attempted fewer bombs than their season averages.

After getting hammered inside against LSU, Tennessee’s newfound onus on getting to the rim resulted in outscoring the Gamecocks 28 to 16 in the paint. Here’s the LSU and USC games’ shot charts stitched together:

Tennessee still got its looks from deep up, but check out the shots that are still in the paint but outside the restricted-zone semicircle. The Vols had maybe five shots from that general location against LSU but approximately doubled those attempts against South Carolina.

I don’t know what it does or doesn’t mean — I still prefer all my shots to come from at the rim or behind the 3-point line, as a general rule, but there’s no question Tennessee’s offense looked at least a bit better against the Gamecocks while hunting for looks inside the arc.

Some lingering, big-picture concerns

Justin Powell played 19 minutes against South Carolina and didn’t attempt a shot. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield registered one block, and literally nothing else, in his three minutes of run Tuesday. Neither of those strike me as positive indicators for Tennessee’s chances to win a couple games in the NCAA Tournament.

Each of these things happening on its own wouldn’t be all that concerning. But they both represent larger concerns. Tennessee needs Powell’s scoring, and it needs BHH playing like a 5-star prospect. I considered both guys integral parts of the Vols’ present and future, but with the way the season’s gone thus far, I wouldn’t be surprised if neither guy was back next season.

I’m not trying to sound any alarms here, but I can’t imagine Powell or BHH is really happy with his current situation. While Powell’s numbers don’t smack you in the face as terrible, he looks a bit shook when he’s out on the floor lately. He’s looks hesitant and unsure instead of assertive. Maybe he’s afraid to mess up and get pulled from the game? I dunno. But as important as it is that he try to limit his mistakes, I’d argue that it’s more important that he feels empowered to play with some freedom and grow through his errors.

After scoring at least one point in nine of his first 10 games, BHH has gone scoreless in four of his last five games and has played fewer than three minutes four times. He’s just 18, and we knew there was going to be a considerable learning curve as a big man who skipped his senior year of high school. But there’s a huge difference between that and what he is now — essentially a total non-factor.