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How the Vols role players are leading the way down the stretch

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The Vols bench has stepped up at the most important time

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Following the loss of big man Olivier Nkamhoua, the Vols needed to fill the void of their leading rebounder and shot blocker, but they faced a big issue. Nkamhoua was top 100 shot blocker in the nation, had developed the ability to shoot the three, and his athleticism made him the Vols best pick-and-roll defender in the frontcourt.

Barnes stated that his bench bigs had to step up, but he’s gotten that and so much more from the Vols’ bench. Most recently, it was the long awaited re-emergence of Victor Bailey Jr. against Missouri on Tuesday night. Bailey had his best game of the season, tallying 11 points on an efficient 5-of-8 shooting.

“He earned it,” stated Rick Barnes. “What VJ did tonight, you could just feel the lift it gave our team.”

“VJ gave us great energy,” Vols star point guard Kennedy Chandler said after the game. “We’ve been trying to tell him to take some shots, and he tooks some great shots today...just give him that confidence to know that you’re not just here to play defense, you’re here to play offense, too.”

Bailey was the Vols’ third leading scorer a season ago. However, he’s gone from a double digit scorer playing nearly 25 minutes per game to 3.2 points per game and only logging double digit minutes just twice since the calendar flipped to 2022. It’s clearly been a major adjustment, but the Oregon transfer has taken it in stride.

Bailey is not the only impact player off the bench, though. In fact, he’s far from it.

Since Olivier went down, Tennessee has played a bit of big by committee, and they’ve found some good success thus far. Initially, against Mississippi State, the Vols got beat up pretty good inside. Fulkerson was getting bullied, Plavsic couldn’t stay with the pick-and-rolls, Aidoo was in foul trouble, and Huntley-Hatfield was a non-factor, but since then, it’s been a different story.

Fulkerson played well against Vanderbilt, but against Kentucky, he had his best game since his 24 point, 10 rebound double-double against Arizona. Fulky was a thorn in the side of National Player of the Year contender Oscar Tshiebwe all night long offensively. His ability to pull Tshiebwe out to the three point line and take him to the rim got the Kentucky star in foul trouble early and made his impact on the game almost minimal.

On the defensive end, Fulky held his own against Tshiebwe, but the biggest impact was made by Jonas Aidoo. Aidoo has been the biggest boost defensively in the absence of Nkamhoua, posting a pair of three-block games over the last week, most notably against Kentucky. If Aidoo were statistically eligible, he’d rank in the top 50 in the country in block percentage. While he’s yet to be a contributor offensively, his presence on the glass and as a shot blocker have been a major boost in perhaps the most needed area for Tennessee.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, no one’s star has skyrocketed more than Vols sixth man Zakai Zeigler. The 5-foot-9 freshman dynamo has been a key contributor all season long, but since Nkamhoua’s injury, he’s seen a consistent uptick in minutes, clocking in over 25 per game off the bench over the Vols’ last five games. He’s averaging 11.8 points per game and a tick under three steals in that span as well. His energy is supersonic, and the defensive intensity of the Vols picks up immediately when he comes in.

What Zeigler also allows this team to do is play small ball, and that fits this team’s identity perfectly. While Barnes normally wants a two-big lineup, the Vols have been at their best lately with Chandler-Zeigler-Vescovi in the backcourt with Triple J and a rotating big in the frontcourt. Zeigler is top five in the nation in steal percentage, second among power conference players, and ranks second among SEC players in conference play. The Vols undoubtedly have a star on their hands, and his emergence in playing so many meaningful minutes alongside Kennedy Chandler could be a big reason this team makes a deep run in March.

“The beauty of our team, and we said it from day one, there’s not a guy on our team that hasn’t helped us win a game this year, and there’s gonna be some guys that people aren’t talking about right now that will help us win some more.” Rick Barnes has raved about how much the players have bought in and how their ability to coach themselves has taken them to the next level, and while seeing it all come together so quickly post-Olivier injury is remarkable, it shouldn’t be surprising. The leadership from the star upperclassmen trickles down to the role players, and when all parts of a team come together like this, special things tend to happen.

The end of the regular season comes with two major challenges for the Vols. They’ll close it out with a rematch against Arkansas, but first they have a date with an old face in the way of Bruce Pearl at home. Thompson-Boling is sure to be rocking on Saturday.