When Zakai Zeigler didn’t pop up off the floor after hitting the deck early in the game against Arkansas, you knew something was up. One look at his face on the ground confirmed those fears. Another look as he was lifted and helped to the locker room left no doubt.
Zakai Zeigler suffered a torn ACL on Tuesday night, Tennessee officially announced on Wednesday. He was running the baseline and his knee buckled at an awkward angle, and the pain was instant.
Just like Hendon Hooker on the football side, Tennessee lost a beloved No. 5 to a torn ACL in the penultimate game of the regular season — just an absolutely brutal end to both of their seasons.
Tennessee went on to beat Arkansas last night, 75-57.
Not that it was a big mystery, but Rick Barnes’ tone during his press conference all but confirmed things last night. He discussed with the media his options going forward at point guard with tournament season looming. On Tuesday, Barnes went to Santiago Vescovi without Tyreke Key available, while also leaning on Josiah-Jordan James and even a little on Julian Phillips and Jahmai Mashack.
“They were working (Vescovi) pretty much all night long,” Barnes said after the game. “They were really trying to take away his left hand and putting pressure on him. But you know, I thought he got himself in a little bit of trouble a few times. But I thought Jahmai Mashack handled the ball (well), Julian, Josiah, all those guys. We’ve talked about that, when those guys get the ball, let’s not put so much pressure on one guy to handle it, let’s bring it down the court and get started.”
Key missed his second straight game due to ankle swelling on Tuesday. He’s a guy that the staff turned to early in the year when they were trying to build depth at point guard. Now, assuming he’s able to return, you’d think that time running point early in the year would pay off.
“We will get Tyreke back,” Barnes said. “We need him to get back. We know what he is capable of. We will do it I guess by committee if that is how you look at it but we have always kind of done that the last couple years.”
Another option is true freshman BJ Edwards, who has found some playing time late in the year. Edwards did not play against Arkansas, but could be an option moving forward.
“I’m not going to count out BJ Edwards either,” Barnes noted. “He’s a guy that — you talk about the improvement of those big guys. He’s improved tremendously here in the last month. I’m sure we’ll need him going forward too.”
Tennessee circled the wagons once Zeigler went down against Arkansas. They outworked the Razorbacks on both ends of the floor, winning the rebounding battle, points in the paint, all while playing smothering defense. But can that last without their floor general?
The Volunteers have one regular season game left on Saturday — a road trip to Auburn. Then it’s on to Nashville for the SEC Tournament, and then the NCAA Tournament in the following week. Barnes is going to have to adjust on the fly, and the load of Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, Julian Phillips and Jahmai Mashack just went through the roof. Let’s see how they respond.