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‘Fearless’ freshman Zakai Zeigler continuing to impress

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NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Without a doubt, the surprise of Tennessee’s season to this point has been the play of freshman point guard Zakai Zeigler. Coming out of nowhere on the recruiting scene, the Volunteers quickly added him to the roster during the summer. Zeigler had to reclassify to join the team, and it wasn’t entirely clear what the plan was for him immediately.

Turns out, he’s one of the key players in the rotation in what should be his senior year of high school.

Zeigler has earned his playing time in practice, and he was thrown into the deep end from the start of the season. Against Alabama, even more was put on his plate during the absence of Kennedy Chandler. Like he has all season long, Zeigler didn’t blink, he just produced.

In Tuscaloosa with a curveball thrown at him just hours before the game began, Zeigler scored 11 points and added four assists, playing 27 minutes of action. His efforts, along with strong showings from Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua, were nearly enough to topple the Tide on the road. Though it was a loss, nearly everyone came away with how the team responded.

“Lot of confidence in Zakai because one thing we know is he is going to do what he does every day in practice,” Rick Barnes said on Monday. “What you see him do during the game, that is what he does every day. He is fearless. He is going to go at it. I think he is a player that is able to let mistakes roll off him real quick and keep competing. But when you play as hard as he plays and he tries to get at it on every possession on both ends, that is what coaches want.”

Zeigler’s big showing at Peach Jam is the only reason Tennessee found him to begin with. Playing against some higher ranked talent, Zeigler stole the show. Rick Barnes and his new staff came in a scooped him up before word got out.

It didn’t take Zeigler very long to break out at the college level. His massive game against North Carolina pushed the Volunteers to one of their biggest wins of the season, which was just his fourth career game. He scored 18 points on that day, and you knew Tennessee had something special.

The quickness, the shooting, the basketball feel and IQ — it’s all there, packaged in a 5-9 frame.

Zeigler is in a pretty good spot going forward too, with Kennedy Chandler likely going one and done. He’s got a chance to play in a pretty large role as a freshman while learning and developing on the fly. Come next season, he may very well be the starting point guard for Rick Barnes.

“You expect them to run your offense for you,” Barnes said of his point guards. “It is a lot you are putting on them. He has done a terrific job of getting in here a week after school started and picking up the system. We had a day off yesterday and I came over and walked into Pratt and he was up in the gym, working with one of the coaches on his own. That is the kind of person he is and kind of player he is. We keep telling him what he has to do to get better and he is up there working at it even on his own time, above and beyond what we ask him to do.”

Tennessee has shifted to more elite prospects over the past couple of seasons, but Zeigler is a throwback to the early Barnes days in Knoxville. His situation is similar to a Grant Williams or Admiral Schofield — overlooked on the recruiting trail but molded into something special almost immediately. With three seasons remaining after this one, Zeigler has a chance to be the next Barnes success story.