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How Rick Barnes is getting Zakai Zeigler to take the next step

Barnes expects a lot out of his point guard — now he expects even more.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Zakai Zeigler had his worst game of the season one week ago against South Carolina. The junior point guard scored just two points in the loss to the Gamecocks, and wasn’t able to spur much action in the offense with just three assists.

Rick Barnes didn’t seem to worried about that blip on the production radar, though. Instead, Barnes took a different approach. Tasked with one of their most difficult road trips of the season, Barnes challenged his point guard to change his entire attitude.

We know Rick doesn’t have any issues getting after guys, and he wants Zeigler to do the same when he sees necessary.

“Well, in all honesty, I told him that I thought he had to change his demeanor,” Barnes said after the win over Kentucky. “I told him, I think he’s one of the best point guards in the country. But I told him, the whole team at some point in time, I can’t be the only guy getting on guys.

“I said, you’ve gotta do that because I am relentless in terms of details and those type of things, but I said, we can’t be a team that when we’re down saying to each other, ‘we’re good, we’re good’ when it’s not good.”

It’s abundantly clear that Barnes thinks a lot of Zeigler. Barnes put him on the bench right beside him in during a preseason scrimmage as Zeigler continued to recover from his torn ACL, allowing Zeigler to watch the game from his point of view. He even gave Zeigler the job of telling guys why they were just pulled from the game after certain mistakes.

Clearly, that trust and coaching is making Zeigler better on the floor. Really outside of that South Carolina game, Zeigler has been playing at the highest level we’ve seen since he arrived in Knoxville.

Following his talk with Barnes after the South Carolina matchup, Zeigler went out and put up 26 points and 13 assists. That’s what complete and total control of the offense looks like.

“We’ve got to be transparent and you guys were at practice yesterday,” Barnes said. “The last two days, he did a great job where he took it on himself. Said, ‘Hey, I’m the guy that’s supposed to be driving this car, and I’m going to make sure that guys are doing what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it and not, I’m going to let them know about it. So tonight I thought he went through a stretch a little bit where he was trying to do a little bit too much, but overall I thought he was terrific.”

If you’ve watched Zeigler over the last three years, you’d expect nothing less after an off night. He’s never let one game spill over into the next, always finding a way to jolt himself back into form. He returned to form against Kentucky, and will look to keep that momentum going against LSU on Wednesday night.