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Some thoughts on Tennessee basketball after an up and down week

Some mixed results this week.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee took their first conference loss on Wednesday, and nearly suffered another on Saturday. In both games, it was Zakai Zeigler and Dalton Knecht coming to the rescue. Knecht was able to salvage a win at Georgia, but came up just short against Mississippi State.

Those two have been fantastic — what about everyone else? Well, it looks a lot like Tennessee teams from the past under Rick Barnes. Let’s talk about it.

Consistency issues remain

Through the past several years of Tennessee basketball, this core seemingly always has one completely maddening five-minute offensive drought that they’ve got to overcome. Unfortunately, that trend has continued. We saw it late in the first half against Mississippi State, then again against Georgia in more sporadic spurts.

It’s frustrating, simply considering what Tennessee has on the roster. So much experience, an elite scorer, a point guard playing at the highest level of his career, two super seniors — and yet it keeps happening.

“Just so inconsistent,” Rick Barnes said after the loss to Mississippi State. “And you think you’re getting there and then you take a couple steps forward and took a step backwards again.”

Dalton Knecht is Mr. Fix It

Those inconsistencies have been fixed in large part due to huge games from Dalton Knecht, who put the team on his back once again in Athens on Saturday. 36 points powered the Tennessee comeback, as Knecht simply couldn’t miss down the stretch. Aggressive takes to the rim, big makes from long range — he did it all.

This all coming off of a 28 point performance against Mississippi State that nearly pushed Tennessee to another comeback win.

Knecht showed a flash of brilliance in the preseason scrimmage against Michigan State, then backed that up with 24 points at Wisconsin. He did it again with 37 points at North Carolina.

“With Dalton he’s so versatile,” Tennessee assistant Justin Gainey said. “You can put him pretty much anywhere. You can post him. You can run him off cuts off screens, and then you can put the ball in his hands. So he is a high level scorer.”

When Tennessee gets down and their traditional offense isn’t working, they play almost entirely through Knecht, or Zeigler at times. So far it’s working, but this team does have another level.

A forgotten part of Saturday’s game was a key three off of an offensive rebound from Santiago Vescovi. That’s what Tennessee’s been missing, and they need more of it.

Tennessee is still waiting on offense from Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi

There’s still another level to this group. We keep saying it, but it’s true. Tennessee has two super senior starters that just don’t have it going offensively right now. Josiah-Jordan James got off to a hot start, but has faded. Santiago Vescovi never has really gotten going so far this year.

The duo combined for just 15 total points over two games this week on the road. That’s creating an overreliance on Knecht and Zeigler and at times Jonas Aidoo. If Tennessee wins in March, they’re going to have to have these two getting back to being offensive threats, at least as complimentary pieces of the puzzle.

“It’s hard,” Barnes admitted of their struggles. “I mean, it’s really hard. I mean, it’s really hard. We expect so much out of those guys and defensively, they do a really good job, but they’ve been in a lot of big games and we believe in them with our whole heart. But it’s consistency. We got to know what we’re going to get, not just from those two guys, but from everybody on our team.”

The two are outstanding defenders and do the little things that don’t show up in the statsheet, but Tennessee is really missing their offense right now.

Zakai Zeigler has gone to another level

Any other time, we’d be marvelling at Zeigler’s performance over the past few weeks. Knecht has sort of overshadowed him, but let’s not gloss over the step forward Zeigler has taken. The kid has never lacked confidence, but this is the most we’ve seen him play with during his time in Knoxville.

He was simply brilliant down the stretch against Mississippi State, spurring on an instant six point run with defense and aggressive takes to the hoop. Unfortunately that effort was wasted, but he was the reason Tennessee was able to claw back in the final seconds.

He’s shooting at a higher volume than ever — and hitting. It took him a couple of months to find his footing coming off of an ACL tear, but he’s all the way back and better than ever. Tennessee has seemingly lacked ‘the guy’ on the offensive end since Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield left, but now they legitimately have two of them in Zeigler and Knecht. That’s an exciting thought as we look ahead to March.

Tennessee goes back to work at Food City Center on Tuesday night against Florida (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). (UPDATED START TIME: 5 p.m. ET)