Tuesday, February 1: #22 Tennessee 90, Texas A&M 80 (15-6, 6-3 SEC)
Saturday, February 5: #22 Tennessee 81, South Carolina 57 (16-6, 7-3 SEC)
Maybe it was here:
I’m thinking this played a part:
Or, well, here:
Possibly this, too:
I mean, frankly, maybe it started when it actually started:
But somewhere along the last three months, Zakai Zeigler went from a New York curiosity that had no serious Division I offers until July to someone who’s on track to be one of the 3-5 all-time most beloved Tennessee players in any major sport the school has to offer. In the mild-to-moderate-to-severe annoyances this season has brought fans of all varieties, there has been one consistent tether to fandom: Zeigler. How a 5’9″ player that committed on August 27 and was initially only taken as an emergency backup for Kennedy Chandler became the fanbase’s favorite player in years is a story we get to live out in real time. What a joy, frankly.
Maybe you have to start where you’re supposed to start. A player who receives little-to-no Division I attention, beyond the Northeast Conference’s Bryant, attends the 2021 Peach Jam in Atlanta. There are probably 300 prospects there more well-known than him if not more. In the News-Sentinel piece, he describes this as his last-ditch attempt at getting a real offer before he takes a prep year. Player has a great week in Atlanta; player receives several committable offers, the most well-known of which would be Minnesota and Wichita State. Player receives a Tennessee offer two weeks after those, visits on August 22, commits on August 27, starts classes on August 31.
In the season preview, potentially the wrongest thing I’ve written online since I began writing about Tennessee basketball publicly five years ago, I listed Zeigler as a possible rotation member (fair). I said he’d play less than 100 minutes of basketball this season. I said his height (5’9″) and weight (167) would put a hard cap on playing time in Year One, because he came in too late to get serious strength training. I figured defense would be an issue. I thought wrong. I am far from the first person Zakai Zeigler has proven wrong; I am simply one of the latest and most public.
Zeigler didn’t top 13 minutes in the first three games, but he broke out in the fourth: 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting against North Carolina. He sort of laid dormant for a while but just…kept coming back. He completely flipped the script of his October scouting report: he struggled to knock down shots, but was ridiculously tenacious on defense. He picked up five steals against Mississippi, then four against South Carolina, then four against Vanderbilt, including a play that essentially sealed the game. Then he started hitting shots again. Watch that CBS video once more:
Listen to Kevin Harlan’s voice levitate. It hangs for a second as the shot drops. You hear what sounds as either “BOOM” or “OOH” but translates to “Zeigler, another three!” Harlan has voiced many beautiful moments of basketball fandom for me; the one most college basketball fans will recall is “Farokmanesh, a three…goooooooooood!” The one the average sports fan will know is this, one of the 3-5 greatest calls by any sports announcer that I know of.
Without the commentary, I don’t think this is one of LeBron’s 25 best dunks of his career. (Noting here that Harlan once used this call for a Kobe dunk that is probably better, but happened in a regular season game and has a worse YouTube video.) LeBron has gone higher, slammed harder, hurt more, defied physics and basic science more beautifully. But it is the commentary that makes me believe this is a physical accomplishment on the level of walking on the Moon. WITH NO REGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE is such a visceral, gut-rattling call. It is what you would say for an act of war, not for someone harshly placing a round ball in a basket. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Basketball is war. It is violent, brutal, and it hurts you, both mentally and physically. We can’t get enough of it and we never will.
Harlan’s voice is meant for something greater than sports. If it were still 2012 and people were still making the Facebook pages titled I Wish Morgan Freeman Narrated My Life, I would make the counter-page for Kevin Harlan. It is an absurd act of luck and grace that Kevin Harlan calls college basketball games with fair regularity. It is even more absurd that Kevin Harlan got to call this particular Zakai Zeigler game. In a just world, as much as I enjoy and love our friends Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw, it would have been Harlan’s voice soundtracking Zeigler’s own LeBron moment:
In October, the reasonable expectation for Zakai Zeigler, and by everyone that doesn’t have the last name Zeigler, was for him to be a playable ninth or tenth man. On the worst night, you figured the emergency backup point guard would come in for 10 minutes because Kennedy Chandler got into foul trouble or something. All of this fun stuff wasn’t supposed to happen until 2022-23 at the earliest. Really, given how raw Zeigler sounded and how little strength training he’d had, you could’ve said his junior year (2023-24) would be the right time for a breakout.
It is February now. We are six days from the Super Bowl. Zakai Zeigler is, at worst, one of the five best players on Tennessee’s roster. There have been games where he’s outplayed Chandler, a near-certain first-round draft pick, by a significant margin. Zeigler and Chandler have combined for 107 points over Tennessee’s last four games. Zeigler has outscored Jabari Smith, Chandler, and TyTy Washington since January 25th. Again, this is a 5’9″ emergency freshman point guard who had as many SEC offers as I did seven months ago.
This is not supposed to logically happen. Bart Torvik’s player stats include a 0-100 recruiting rating for each player, which essentially corresponds to “how highly was this player rated by the average recruiting website.” Among freshmen at high-major schools, #1 in Box Plus-Minus is Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, who was the #1 overall recruit in last year’s class. #2: A.J. Griffin of Duke, who was 18th. Of this year’s top 22 players by BPM, 12 were ranked no lower than 35th in the class of 2021. All but two were at least ranked in the top 200. Only one of those 22 was, at any point of their senior year, unranked. Take a wild guess which one.
So here we are: an unranked, barely recruited 5’9″ freshman has stolen the hearts of the entire Tennessee fanbase with a full month of games left to play in his first season. And that’s Act One. Imagine what Acts Two, Three, and Four will bring. Using Torvik’s same player stats, I attempted to see what happened to freshman with a similar Year One to Zeigler (>1.5 PRPG, >5.5 BPM, high-major player, no taller than 6′). I then had to expand it because the initial list was eight people long over 15 seasons, and one of them was Zeigler’s teammate.
Alright then: 6’3″ or shorter, same PRPG, same BPM, but a 3% or better Steal% and a 20% or higher Usage Rate. This time, let’s see what happened after their freshman year.
One more: the Player Comparison tool on Torvik’s site, which takes all of Zeigler’s stats and throws up a similarity score to other seasons that match it most closely. This is freshman-only, and these are the five closest comparisons.
Please remember that this is a player who was completely unranked by any recruiting service until August 26, the day before he committed to Tennessee. Among the five players that this system feels are his closest comparisons, there are a combined 11 All-Conference First or Second Team selections. There are five players who at least touched the court in an NBA game. Three of them are active. One of them, VanVleet, is an All-Star. Of the five, only Mills failed to play all four years at his school of choice.
Consider all of that, but most importantly consider that you are strongly likely to get three more years plus the next 6-8 weeks of Zakai Zeigler in a Tennessee uniform. The beauty and horror of life is that we cannot tell the future. Anything, both good and bad, can reasonably happen from this point onward. All of what we know to look for going forward is based on past events. Yet those past events are so exciting, so charming, so singularly lovable that the uncertainty of the future is embraced with arms wide open.
Basketball, the beautiful game, has given Zeigler and his family a chance at a new life. It provides, and if there is justice, it will provide for him. I find myself most excited to see the ways the future will provide a career for a player who grew up in the shadows and deserves the spotlight like nothing else.
Various notes from the last two games:
- Another out-of-nowhere ref show. Tennessee and Texas A&M combined for 42 fouls, a couple of which were late A&M desperation ones but most of which were organic. I was a little surprised by this, mostly because Tennessee is rarely a foul-heavy team and A&M isn’t as extreme as Carolina. Getting a little tired of noting these stats in games where the general expectation should be about 32-34 combined fouls; very much “this could’ve been an email” vibes. Let the players play.
- On free throw variance. There were a couple weeks where Tennessee fans were in tatters over free throw shooting. That’s fine; it did look bad for a while. Those complaints have now gone quiet after Tennessee went 34-for-41 (82.9%) at the line this week, but the worst Benevolent God of Variance action was letting A&M, a team that entered the game shooting 64% at the line, go 21-for-25 (84%). You could explain five of A&M’s 80 points away right there; a 90-75 scoreline would indeed feel a little better.
- The Josiah-Jordan James resurgence. Torvik’s site also provides an adjusted Net Rating for each player that rarely goes above, like, +8 or +9. James posted a +7.3 against A&M and +9.6 against South Carolina to go along with his two highest scoring performances of the season. James is now shooting 32.7% from deep in SEC play, which sounds average but is a percentage everyone was begging for when the guy was in the 20-25% range.
- Positive three-point variance! When I found myself in the depths of exploring seagulls in January, it was in part influenced by Tennessee’s seeming inability to have a normal basketball game. At the time, through 14 games, these were their numbers:
- 50% or better: 1 game (7.1%)
- 40-49%: 4 games (28.6%)
- 30-39%: 1 game (7.1%)
- 20-29%: 6 games (42.9%)
- 19% or worse: 2 games (14.3%)
Part of the frustration was that Tennessee was having significantly more bad games (8 of 29% or worse) than good ones (5 of 40% or better). Fast forward four weeks, and here’s the new numbers:
- 50% or better: 2 games (9.1%)
- 40-49%: 7 games (31.8%)
- 30-39%: 3 games (13.6%)
- 20-29%: 8 games (36.3%)
- 19% or worse: 2 games (9.1%)
The problem still exists in that Tennessee is bizarrely incapable of having a normal, boring shooting night. The great news is that the top half of this chart has grown immensely since the LSU loss. Tennessee now has nine games of 40% or better from deep, and the median performance is now a 35.7% outing in a home win over LSU. One month of basketball changes a lot!
- Four guards/wings at all times. Torvik’s algorithm considers James a ‘stretch 4,’ which is…probably fair, but Tennessee starts him at the 3 in pretty much every game. I’m sort of at the point where I don’t care about starting lineups as long as the closing lineup is the one that makes sense. Tennessee got there in the South Carolina game, unfortunately thanks to the Nkamhoua injury. Per Hoop-Explorer, lineups with any three of Vescovi/Chandler/Zeigler/Powell were +15 in 23 possessions; all other lineups were +9 in 42. Play three of those guys at all important times, and you will be happy.
- Speaking of which: closing lineup. The data of CBB Analytics shares this: Tennessee’s most frequent lineup with 4 minutes to go this season has been Chandler, Zeigler, Vescovi, James, and Nkamhoua. Second-most frequent: the first four, but with Fulkerson. Maybe everything is fine?
- Finally: KenPom bump. Tennessee now sits 34th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, which would both be the second-highest offense of the Barnes era and also would fulfill a useful stats thing. This website scanned the NCAA Tournament field in 2018 and found that, since KenPom’s existence, 86% of Final Four teams had an offense that was at least in the top 40 nationally. 73% were in the top 20. I’m not picking Tennessee to go to the Final Four barring a very advantageous draw (more on that later this week), but Tennessee is trending in the right direction at the right time. Last year’s Elite Eight teams and their pre-NCAAT offensive rankings: 1st, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 18th, 28th, 35th, and 63rd. At least being top 35 is positive, especially after a month of being outside the top 50.