Tennessee basketball is just a handful of weeks away from getting going, if you can believe it. The Volunteers are once again expected to challenge for the SEC crown, but they’ll be moving into a new era at point guard. Kennedy Chandler went one and done as expected, leaving a big hole in the Tennessee roster.
But all is good, right? Tennessee found Zakai Zeigler in the summer of 2021, and he shocked everyone by instantly becoming one of the most impactful players on the roster. Zeigler should slide right into Chandler’s role and execute Rick Barnes’ system without much transition at all.
Or maybe not — at least to start the game.
“To be quite frank, Zakai doesn’t want to start,” Rick Barnes said to kickoff preseason practices. “He feels like he can impact the game coming off (the bench), which I think has been good for our team.”
Zeigler flew under the radar until the 2021 Peach Jam Tournament, where he turned some heads. Rick Barnes and his staff got in early, locking things down before word go out. One year later, he’s one of the three most important players returning to this roster. Wherever he lands in the rotation, he’s going to get starter minutes.
“Santi obviously has played some there,” Barnes said of the point guard spot. “But with Tyreke Key and BJ Edwards, those guys got a lot of reps at the point this year. Because what we like to do is have as many guys that we can that can rebound and go with it. Understand what we need to do when we don’t get the primary break. But we feel good about it. We certainly have enough experience there. I think it will be done by committee. It’s normally (done like that). It was like that a year ago and I think it will be pretty much the same way now.”
BJ Edwards is an incoming four-star freshman out of Knoxville, perhaps being overshadowed a touch by the arrival of five-star Julian Phillips. However, just based on how this Tennessee roster is set up, Edwards could have a large role right out of the gates.
“BJ’s work ethic has been really good,” Barnes said. “He came in and his work ethic has been terrific. He’s, again, another player that, I give him great credit and I think our staff would, how he has embraced the older guys, knowing that hey, I need to watch these guys. Probably the best things that has happened to him was having to deal with Zakai all summer. Those two guys were at the point, BJ was at the point for the most part, because Santi was away some. But he has grown tremendously. And he’s a player that we have a lot of confidence in him. We know he’s going to help us. He’s competitive, has really good instincts. Like I said about Julian and I would say about any of the freshmen, how quickly can they really figure out the defensive end?”
And finally, a darkhorse option is Tyreke Key. The veteran transfer from Indiana State came home this offseason, looking to capitalize on his final season of eligibility. He’s been regarded as a shooting guard, but Key has gotten some work at point guard as he settles into the offensive system.
“He is quiet, but he is a very versatile player,” Barnes said of Key. “I think people look at them because he has always been able to score a lot of points. But he is much more than a guy — he is a shooter, he is a shot-maker. He can pass the ball. He has got a really good feel for it, the game. He is a guy that — I don’t know if anyone has thought we want you to play some point. He is not afraid to go there. He has probably surprised us there maybe. He is extremely focused. He knows exactly what he wants to do and knows how to go about his business in terms of being very efficient on the court.”
Key did not play last season due to a shoulder issue, but averaged over 17 points for Indiana State in 2020-21. Obviously the shoulder injury is a question coming into this year, especially for a shooter.
Tennessee also has Josiah-Jordan James with experience running point, but he seems to have settled into his wing role. Santiago Vescovi really popped when the staff moved him off the ball, and they likely want to keep him there.
That leaves Zeigler and Edwards, and perhaps some Key. ‘Starting’ doesn’t mean much when you boil it all down. Zeigler played 22 minutes per game one season ago, and that number is likely to push right through to 30 this year.
But how will things look to start the game? It might just be the true freshman taking the floor first. Expect Barnes to iron all this out during the first few games.