Tennessee Is Playing With A New Attitude On The Court. Maybe It Was Time For The ‘Heel’ Turn

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If you’ve paid attention to the Tennessee basketball team over the last month or so, you’ve probably noticed this team is playing with a new type of attitude. No, I’m not talking about how they attack the basket or spot up for a three-point attempt. I am talking about the physical nature of their play.

It’s almost as though this squad has finally taken on the bad guy role.

We’ve seen glimpses of the change in recent weeks, especially after that loss to Kentucky when nothing on defense went their way. Maybe it’s Zakai Zeigler and the way he attacks each game like it’s his last. You don’t see many basketball players in the country throw themselves into a game like he does. The young man from New York City has brought a different type of toughness to the court.

Maybe it was when Rick Barnes decided to insert Uros Plavsic into the roster for John Fulkerson. The 7’1 center has taken his aggression out on opponents at times this season, trying to set a tone for the game. He probably took things a bit too far on Wednesday night when he pushed a Florida player in the back on a free throw and drew a technical.

But the leader of this team right now, Santiago Vescovi, has been the catalyst. He’s not only their leading scorer, but he’s attacking on defense and getting in the face of his opponents, letting them know that his guys won’t back down from a challenge.

Following the win over Florida, Vescovi discussed the team’s attitude and approach to the game:

“I definitely like it. I think that this attitude is helping us a lot. Also, it is putting a target on our back. Teams will know that we always have this attitude, so it can be heard. I think it spikes us even better, it gets us to a point where everyone is focused. If we can put all of that energy into winning the basketball game, I think it is going to help us even more.”

We don’t usually see a Rick Barnes team play with this type of attitude, at least not in recent years. But this team needed a shot in the arm, something to take them to the next level of competitiveness. So they decided to get tough.

They started talking trash at half court before the game against LSU game last weekend. The two teams had to be separated by team managers and trainers. Then on Wednesday night, a few Gators decided to tease Zeigler about his size during the postgame handshake. Tennessee clapped back and threw a few ‘Gator Chomps’ at them while they exited the court.

In the world of professional wrestling, they call this guy a “heel.” Now, when I look at this Tennessee squad, I see a team that has taken on that heel persona. I understand Barnes doesn’t care for that type of play, but Tennessee can’t just keep taking it from other teams and then sit quietly off to the side. Nope. Whether it comes from the team itself from or Barnes, this new tough guy act seems to be working right now.

Zakai Zeigler was asked about all the recent chirpiness, and the New York native summed it up pretty well:

“I think it is just us winning and other teams have the fire coming out. I understand it because I am not losing too. My teammates are not losing, so I could understand that fire from other teams. But I think it just comes down to us winning basketball games.”

Now, the Vols will head to Texas, where Barnes coached for so many years. It will be a pregame with some reflection and appreciation, but then it’ll be time for his team to bring the physicality once again.

“‘We’re here to win a basketball game, not a fight.’ That is what it always comes down to.”

That’s a quote that the Vols often say. Zeigler brought it up again Wednesday night, but it also fits well with their road trip to Austin, which will probably be both a basketball game and a dog fight.

Maybe this Tennessee team can win them both, play hard and still maintain the integrity Barnes demands. But even if they don’t, it’s still definitely not a bad thing to see the Vols play the villain — especially if it keeps that chip on their shoulder.

Written by Trey Wallace

Wallace started covering the SEC in 2012, as the conference landscape was beginning to change. Prior to his time in Knoxville, Wallace worked in Nashville for The Read Optional, where he first produced content that garnered national attention. His passion for sports is evident in his work and has led him to break some of college football’s biggest stories. His social media reach and natural podcast proficiency continue to make Wallace one of SEC’s most trusted sources.

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