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Rocky Top Talk Roundball Round-Up: SEC/Big 12 Challenge and the rise of Zakai Zeigler

Tennessee’s point guard is on a heater as the Vols continue to dominate all the way to the top of KenPom

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

This week, we’re strictly sticking to Tennessee and the SEC as the SEC/Big 12 Challenge happened on Saturday. The SEC received a bit of a wake up call, getting thoroughly defeated in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, but it was a different tune for the Vols as Tennessee continued its hot stretch of play this past week.

We’ll kick this week’s column off with the Vols and their rising star point guard.

Vols dominate Georgia, handle Texas, Rise to top of KenPom

After weeks of a stranglehold on the number one spot, Houston’s latest struggles and Tennessee’s most recent stretch of dominance has a new team sitting atop KenPom...for now...and it’s your very own Tennessee Volunteers.

Tennessee returned home to Thompson-Boling on Wednesday and decimated what’s been a very competitive Georgia team, 70-41. It marks the second time the Vols have held an SEC opponent under the 50-point mark, the first being South Carolina. It’s the eighth time overall this season.

It was an all-around team effort on offense as nine Vols scored five or more points with just two players, Zakai Zeigler and Tobe Awaka, eclipsing double figures. Santiago Vescovi had one of his jack-of-all-trades type games, totaling 8 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 5 steals.

Defensively, of course, is where this game turned into the blowout it became. Tennessee didn’t shoot all that well from the field (28.6% from three on 21 attempts), but they absolutely suffocated Georgia. Tennessee forced 20 turnovers, 12 of which were steals. Georgia’s Terry Roberts had been averaging 19.5 points per game over his last six games, but Tennessee held him to just two first half points and 11 overall. Georgia shot 36.4% from the field and 18.2% from three. Teams are shooting just 21.6% from deep against the Vols this season, the best mark of any defense in the country.

Against Texas, the Vols continued to dominate as Rick Barnes got one up on his old team. Tennessee led by 12 at half, 40-28, and continued to maintain their control over Texas in the second frame, winning 82-71. Defensively, Tennessee continues to stifle opponents, but Texas is one of the better offenses in the nation, and the Vols held them to 44.1% from the field, their sixth-worst shooting game this season.

The Vols out-rebounded Texas 38 to 25, including a 42.3 offensive rebounding percentage, meaning they got an offensive rebound on nearly half of their own missed shots. Tennessee was terrific shooting inside, bucking a problematic trend of late, making 19 of their 20 shots that were either dunks or at the rim. All Vols not named Uros Plavsic shot 16-of-19 from the free throw line—has anyone checked on Uros? Is it the yips?—and the Vols assisted on 63.3% of their made shots which somehow lowered their season average to 67.0%, only good for third best in the country per KenPom.

Speaking of assists, Zakai Zeigler is blossoming before our eyes. The Vols point guard is silencing all doubters that felt as if this team didn’t have a true point guard (me), recording his third double-double this season. The sophomore guard scored 22 points to go with 10 assists and a pair of steals. Olivier Nkamhoua broke out of his recent slump with a tremendous game here. Nkamhoua led all scorers with 27 points on 12-of-15 from the field. Four Vols reached double figures in a major win over a top 10 team.

Back to that pesky, 5-foot-9 point guard. Zakai Zeigler is the only player in a power conference that ranks in the top 40 in steal and assist rate. The only other player in all of college basketball in that range is Terrion Murdix of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Over his last four games, Zeigler is averaging 17.3 points and 7.8 assists per game on 52.3% from the field (11-13 on shots inside the three point line) and 38.7% from three. His turnover rate over the last four games is at 17.0%, and that’s largely cratered because of the five turnover first half against Mississippi State. Take out that game and just look at his last three, his turnover rate sits at 11.8%. Sample size be damned, that 11.8% would be sixth-best among true and combo point guards in the country, per Bart Torvik.

Zeigler’s 140.0 offensive rating (a measure of points scored per 100 possessions) ranks 15th among power conference players in this four game stretch. Only one non-center has a better defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) than Zeigler’s 77.5 on the season as a whole, and that’s Santiago Vescovi’s 77.0. He continues to be the heart and soul of this team while also showing the capability to be the best player on both ends of the court.

I think it’s safe to say things feel...different right now on good ol’ Rocky Top.

Around the SEC

SEC Standings

Team Conf. Record Record Pts/G PA/Gm NET KenPom
Team Conf. Record Record Pts/G PA/Gm NET KenPom
Alabama 8-0 18-3 82.5 69.9 4 5
Tennessee 7-1 18-3 74.4 54.5 2 1
Texas A&M 7-1 15-6 74.6 66.0 44 40
Auburn 6-2 16-5 72.4 64.2 31 29
Kentucky 5-3 14-7 75.3 66.9 35 34
Florida 5-3 12-9 71.7 65.0 50 48
Missouri 4-4 16-5 83.1 75.3 45 49
Georgia 4-4 14-7 70.1 66.9 112 104
Arkansas 3-5 14-7 74.5 65.1 28 21
Vanderbilt 3-5 10-11 71.9 70.6 93 90
Ole Miss 1-7 9-10 67.1 67.4 117 100
South Carolina 1-7 8-11 64.3 73.4 273 242
Mississippi State 1-7 13-8 65.6 59.4 54 53
LSU 1-7 12-7 66.6 67.6 136 131


West Virginia got off to a hot start on the back of Erik Stevenson and never looked back. The Mountaineers took a 16 point lead into halftime at home, but Auburn was able to storm back in the second half, cutting the lead to one at three different points. However, their valiant effort was never enough to break the seal as WVU never trailed. Huggins evens up the all-time series between he and Pearl at one win apiece.
Player of the Game: Erik Stevenson (WVU): 31 points, 7-10 3PT, 6 reb, 144 ORtg

Big 12: 1 — SEC: 0

In the biggest shock of the day, Oklahoma, a 5.5 point underdog at home, dominated from start to finish against second-ranked Alabama. The talk about Oklahoma all season had been that they’re supremely well-coached by Porter Moser, but their talent was sub-par to compete at a high level. Despite their 11-9 record, they disproved that today. Alabama, who lives and dies by Nate Oats’ high tempo three-and-D style, flatlined. Alabama shot just 6-of-22 from three, and their top tier defense gave up 93 points to an Oklahoma team that had exceeded 80 points just once all season.

Porter Moser had a plan, and it was to bail after any offensive shot and not let Alabama get out in transition. Alabama thrives in an up and down game, but they’re less than stellar when forced to play a halfcourt game. It worked, and Oklahoma was making everything. The Sooners knocked down 9 of their 13 three point attempts (69.2%) and shot 57.6% from the floor overall. This was a big Tanner Groves game as the Eastern Washington transfer put up 14 and 12 rebounds while Grant Sherfield and Jalen Hill carried Oklahoma at times offensively. Bad start for the SEC.
Player of the Game: Grant Sherfield (OU): 30 points, 11-20 FG, 4-5 3PT, 6 ast, 143 ORtg

Big 12: 2 — SEC: 0

Finally, the SEC is on the board, and in a big way. Missouri welcomed one of the big boys of the Big 12 into Columbia and showed them what the new era under Dennis Gates is all about. It was a decent shooting day for Iowa State, but their 19 turnovers (29.2% turnover rate) were their demise as Missouri made them pay repeatedly in transition.

Mizzou made 14 of their 30 three pointers, good for 46.7% from deep. D’Moi Hodge’s 17 points and 5 assists and Kobe Brown’s double-double were the differences in this game as Iowa State being without Caleb Grill was a huge blow on both ends of the court.
Player of the Game: Kobe Brown (MIZ): 20 pts (66.7%), 12 reb, 3 ast, 3 stl, 169 ORtg

Big 12: 2 — SEC: 1

From the first SEC win to the first win by a visiting team, a laboring Texas Tech went into Baton Rouge and piled onto LSU’s free fall. The Red Raiders used a 12-2 run midway through the first half to give themselves distance from LSU, but the Tigers stormed back with a 13-4 run to start the second half to take a 46-45 lead. LSU extended that lead to five with under 10 minutes to play, but Tech would outscore LSU 25-12 over the final 9:03 and come away with an eight point win. LSU’s losing streak extends to eight with Missouri and Alabama on the horizon.
Player of the Game: Kevin Obanor (TTU): 22 pts (53.3%), 4 reb, 133 ORtg

Big 12: 3 — SEC: 1

My favorite part about this midseason challenge every year is the unexpected upsets that we get. TCU beat Kansas at the Phog a week ago by 23. Naturally, they go into Starkville and lose to a sputtering Mississippi State team in overtime.

TCU could not make threes, a running trend for them, shooting 6-of-27 from behind the arc. Tolu Smith had his best game this season as Mississippi State dominated inside the triple stripe, and that was really the difference.
Player of the Game: Tolu Smith (State): 27 pts, 13 reb, 5 ast, 4 blk, 156 ORtg

Big 12: 3 — SEC: 2

If a game could sum up Arkansas’s season, it would be this one. Injuries have decimated a very talented team, but between good coaching and still having talent outside of Trevon Brazile and Nick Smith, they remain competitive but continually come up short against good teams (except LSU...odd). That’s exactly what happened in this game. Ricky Council was tremendous for the Hogs, scoring 25 on 10-of-17 shooting, but beyond him and Davonte Davis, Arkansas didn’t get much help offensively, and both Jordan Walsh and Makhi Mitchell fouled out late.

Both LJ Cryer and Keyonte George led the charge for Baylor, each reaching the 20 point mark, and George added a pair of free throws late to put Baylor up three with five seconds left. The Bears have now won six straight, but most by the skin of their teeth. Just one game have been decided by more than seven points. As for the Hogs, it’s back to the drawing board again. The offense just isn’t giving them enough. Their turnover rate in the new year sits at 21.3%, well into the 300s in ranking.
Player of the Game: LJ Cryer (BU): 20 pts (46.2%), 2 reb, 1 ast, 127 ORtg

Big 12: 4 — SEC: 2

Having recapped the game earlier, I’ll be brief. This game never felt as close as the score dictated. Tennessee led by as much as 22 at one point, and the Vols never saw a single digit lead in the second half, so the fact that this game was so poorly officiated had little bearing on the game’s final result. Per KenPom, the lowest win probability Tennessee had was 76.3% around the 17 minute mark of the first half. It was never in doubt.
Player of the Game: Zakai Zeigler: 22 pts (70%), 10 ast, 2 stl, 157 ORtg

Big 12: 4 — SEC: 3

It was an emotional game as Keyontae Johnson played his former team for the first time after collapsing on the court two years ago. In a lower scoring game, Kansas State’s defense stymied Florida’s already middling offense, holding the Gators to 50 points on 31% from the field. Keyontae Johnson didn’t particularly shoot well, but he still posted a double-double while Markquis Nowell scored 13 to go with 8 rebounds and 8 assists and a pair of steals.

Florida has a brutal three game stretch ahead of them as they’ll host Tennessee before hitting the road to face Kentucky and Alabama. If they have any hope of reaching the dance, they have to win two of those games, and the odds of that seem long.
Player of the Game: Markquis Nowell (KSU): 13 pts, 8 reb, 8 ast, 2 stl, 92 ORtg

Big 12: 5 — SEC: 3

This one felt the most predictable of the SEC/Big 12 games. A top 10 defense against one of the worst offenses in the SEC that’s lost nine of its last 10 games ended exactly how you’d expect. Ole Miss shot 5-of-19 from three while Oklahoma state shot 61.8% from the field while getting 22 of their points from the charity stripe. The closest this game got was 3-3.
Player of the Game: Kalib Boone (OSU): 18 pts (100%), 4 reb, 6-8 FT, 164 ORtg

Big 12: 6 — SEC: 3

In the “main event” of the evening, Kansas enacted some revenge for the beatdown Kentucky gave them a season ago, beating the ‘Cats in Lexington, ending Kentucky’s four game winning streak. Jalen Wilson and Dajuan Harris were great for KU as per usual, and KJ Adams added 17 on 80-percent shooting from the field. As for UK, they shot well (60.5% FG%) as Tshiebwe gave them 18 and nine boards, and Cason Wallace and Jacob Toppin both added 14. Kentucky simply couldn’t get enough stops as they tried to crawl back into the game.
Player of the Game: Jalen Wilson (KU): 22 pts (50%), 8 reb, 2 ast, 117 ORtg

Big 12: 7 — SEC: 3

Final Thoughts

I expected the Big 12 to win this year’s challenge, but the extent of ass kicking they dished out was quite the surprise. Oklahoma defeating Alabama in general was a shock, but they crushed their souls early and tortured them for 40 minutes, and while TCU falling in Starkville was unexpected, that’s the way this SEC/Big 12 Challenge went. Ranked teams were 3-5 in this year’s challenge, home teams were 8-2, and chaos was everywhere. This continues to be a very fun midseason event that will only get better next season with the arrival of Houston, Cincinnati, BYU, and UCF to the Big 12.

Utah Watch

WE HAVE A BREAKING DEVELOPMENT IN UTAH WATCH (Utah Watch is my tracker to see what teams could possibly break 2012 Utah’s record for worst power conference finish in the history of KenPom when they finished 302nd). LOUISVILLE IS IN DEFCON 2. THE LOUISVILLE CARDINALS ARE 300 IN KENPOM. SOUND THE ALARMS, IT MIGHT BE HAPPENING.

I hope everyone is having a great weekend, and as always, Go Big Orange.