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As the NCAA Tournament begins, Tennessee still searching for answers without Zakai Zeigler

Barnes speaks on Tennessee’s massive adjustment.

Missouri v Tennessee Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This time last year Tennessee was a popular pick to make a run at the Final Four. This year? Well, it’s the exact opposite.

There’s some chatter out there about a Louisiana upset in the first round, and Tennessee’s potential second round matchup with Duke — who is fresh off of running through the ACC to win their conference tournament — doesn’t exactly feel favorable.

Why is that? Well, Tennessee fell apart down the stretch run of SEC play. Through a variety of injury variables, the Volunteers went just 5-7 in their last 12 games entering the NCAA Tournament. The biggest variable ended up being the deepest cut, which turned out to be losing point guard Zakai Zeigler to a torn ACL.

Zeigler went down against Arkansas in the penultimate game of the regular season, leaving Tennessee in a tough spot entering the most important part of the year. The Volunteers responded with a thumping of Arkansas after he left the game, but lost at Auburn the following Saturday. They went on to exit the SEC Tournament on Friday last week.

“What I think the biggest thing is, again, you go back to our last game,” said Rick Barnes, speaking on the loss of Zeigler. “We had two breakdowns just details in the last three minutes that were critical. We went under a ball screen, which we don’t do. Then we point-switched and gave up two threes. They made the shots. They were contested. This time of year, I don’t think many players need much daylight.”

Barnes is clearly pointing to Zeigler’s ability to defend the point, citing that as a critical thing that the Vols were missing down the stretch against Missouri in the SEC Tournament loss.

“We can’t have the defensive lapses especially late in the game,” Barnes continued. “Even at the end of the first half, even though Jahmai made that long three to give us a three, that was a major breakdown on the perimeter (on the previous possession). You can’t do that. Regardless of what the score was in the game, almost every game — Auburn, Missouri — those are one-possession games. You can go back, which one you want to pick. We’re not going to be perfect. But there are certain ones, we spend a lot of time working through them. You can’t breakdown. We’ve done that too much here lately.

“Overall, I do, I think our guys know what we have to do. You look at what we have done in the month of February and what we have had to work through. We have been in really every game with a chance to win it. We just have to find a way to close some of them out.”

Barnes has shifted point responsibility over to Santiago Vescovi, who has taken quite a bit of responsibility on since Zeigler went down.

It isn’t all bad news for Tennessee though. They were able to get Josiah-Jordan James back in the lineup, along with Julian Phillips. Tyreke Key recovered from an ankle issue too, putting up 16 points in the loss to Missouri.

Tennessee just appears to be missing something playing without Zeigler. Rick Barnes gave his thoughts on what that something was earlier in the week.

“We need to be able to get downhill and get there and get fouls on people,” Barnes said. “But then the key there is we get there, can we make the right play from it. Again, we’ve had some good drives in some of the games that we’ve had here. Again, I go back, offensively, I think we can do what we need to do there.”

Vescovi, James and Key can all make the shot from beyond the arc, but do you trust any of them to get to the rim? Julian Phillips was supposed to be that guy, but he hasn’t been consistent enough on the offensive end. Tennessee’s post has gotten inconsistent offensive production from Olivier Nkamhoua, and the rest of that bunch has been extremely hit or miss.

So what does that leave? An over-reliance on Vescovi and James to hit from the outside, which as we know, has proven to be a dangerous proposition. It’s something that bit Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, with the Volunteers ultimately falling to Michigan in the second round.

Can Rick Barnes turn this ship around against all odds and make a run through the East Region? Tennessee’s path is difficult, but not impossible. James, Vescovi and Nkamhoua — the Vols hope to lean on experience, but do they have enough playmaking ability to advance?

We’ll find out late on Thursday night.