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Rick Barnes talks South Carolina, Josiah-Jordan James health, and more

News and notes.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee is getting into the full swing of conference play, starting the SEC slate off with a 2-0 record. The Volunteers took apart Mississippi State earlier this week, and now will hit the road once again to face South Carolina.

The Gamecocks have entered a new era after letting Frank Martin go over the offseason. Lamont Paris is now at the helm, coming over from Chattanooga. It’s been a tough start for Paris, who has been tasked with rebuilding the program. South Carolina sits 7-7 on the year, coming off of a tough loss to Vanderbilt this week.

On Saturday afternoon, they’ll welcome the No. 8 team in the country to Columbia. Rick Barnes tackled some hot topics ahead of the game.

Is Josiah-Jordan James good to go?

“He probably wanted to practice more yesterday than we allowed him to but I said after the game we’re going to have to manage him throughout the whole year because he’s that important to us that we need to make sure we can have him every game.”

James returned to log 17 minutes in Tennessee’s win over Mississippi State — his first action in a month. It sounds like he’s still day to day at this point, and they will continue to monitor him closely and decide his status during warmups.

Momentum building for Julian Phillips

“I see Julian—he’s a freshman that came in and had a lot put on him because of Josiah not being ready to play and a lot of that went to Julian. I thought he handled it well. I do think he got tired which is normal for freshmen because high level games we were in early, it took a toll. I can see now he’s coming out of it. I can tell by watching him in practice, watching what he does and I can see him getting himself on a roll here.”

Phillips put up 11 and seven against Mississippi State, shooting 83 percent from the floor.

Zakai Zeigler growing as a true point guard

“Zakai is a guy that, believe it or not at his height, he’s always been a guy that thought score, score, score. But now the fact that he’s really learning how to run a team, manage a team. With the effort that he plays on the defensive end, then the effort he plays with on offense, his speed, what he brings, it’s fun. I would say this, I don’t think he’s anywhere close to where he’s going to be. Because as he continues to learn the game from that position, and certainly when we’re out there with really four guards on the court, and all four of them get going, I think it frees them all up. The fact is, what he wants to do, he’s got to become a great floor general. And he wants to do it.”

Zeigler was expected to start at point guard for Tennessee this year, but Barnes quickly and publicly noted that he wasn’t ready for that role. Zakai has been coming off of the bench since that ugly Colorado loss, looking much more like his old self.

Tobe Awaka’s continued growth

“You see how hard Santi and Zakai and Josiah and Jahmai Mashack go everyday. Well, that’s what Tobe does. Everyday. And when a guy goes like that, it’s just a matter of getting him in the right games at the right time. When we put him in the games, we weren’t even sure at times — the Maryland game — what he would do at that point in time. He was ready for the opportunity. He took advantage of it. From that point on, we knew that he would be a factor and we would have find a way to make sure that he’s involved every game.”

Nobody really expected anything from Awaka this year, but his toughness and physicality in the post has forced the staff to give him some minutes. Another great find by this staff.

On South Carolina freshman GG Jackson

“There’s a great get for him right off the bat. To be able to go flip him in the recruiting process and get him to stay home and go to South Carolina and you know he’s a guy that can create. They look for him to do a lot of that and he gets out in the open court or he gets the ball— I’ve watched him obviously many years through high school and he’s an explosive player that can really get going.”

The 6-9, 210 pound forward was the sixth ranked player in the class of 2022. He famously decommitted from North Carolina to join the Gamecocks — a huge get for Paris in his first season. Jackson is leading South Carolina in scoring, putting up nearly 17 points per game and averaging 7.5 rebounds.

Tennessee and South Carolina are set for a 3:30 p.m. ET tip-off in Columbia. SEC Network will have the coverage.