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INDIANAPOLIS — It will be a dogfight inside the paint for No. 3 seed Tennessee and 11-seed Michigan tonight (5:50 p.m. Eastern), with both teams mustering their own type of offensive strategy. But how these teams play on defense will determine the outcome of this game, not just from a fundamental standpoint. Tonight’s game feels like it will be one of those backyard brawls you see on YouTube.
But in the case of Tennessee, they’ll be able to continue feeding off the mentality of Zakai Zeigler during every moment he’s on the court. There’s something about the scrappy freshman that makes his teammates want to play harder. Maybe it’s the non-stop movement around the ball or the force he plays with on defense, but it has brushed off on his teammates and Rick Barnes couldn’t be any happier.
“I think from the time he arrived on campus, once he got settled in the way he endeared himself, you know as a teammate. I think the way the players look at him, they see that he’s fearless, he’s got a very short memory whether he misses a shot or turns the ball over, even when I voice my opinion to him he has a great way of letting it run off his back and focus on the next play.”
It was Josiah-Jordan James joining Zeigler at the podium on Friday afternoon, discussing tonight’s game with Michigan. There might not have been a better representation of what Rick Barnes expects out of his players than those two. Strong willed, able to turn the light-switch on and locking down on both sides of the ball, this is what you get out of these two. They will both be needed on Saturday night against Michigan if this team is going to make the Sweet 16, there’s no way to sugarcoat it.
The way James has attacked the basket this season, while also becoming a driving force on defense, isn’t lost on Rick Barnes, he knew James could be this type of player. After struggling at first, he has turned into the ultimate team player.
“We know he struggled at times with some of the injuries he had. Obviously he’s tremendously respected by his teammates because he never complains. They know how hard he’s worked. What he has developed into and, again I’ve said it many times, I think he’s just really getting started, finding himself as a player, and the fact that he’s been able to start scoring at all three levels. What he does night in and night out defensively and rebounding wise speaks volumes about who he is as a team player.”
In the matchup with Michigan, the guards will need to help as much as possible with paint defense, even if it’s just creating chaos every time they touch the ball. This Tennessee team has faced its fair share of big men, most recently Oscar Tshiebwe and Walker Kessler, so they know what to expect with Hunter Dickinson, though it might be just a bit different because of his 7-foot-2 stature. But this doesn’t faze Josiah-Jordan James, most likely because they’ve had to play this type of game before and have found success. But, it doesn’t mean it will happen again, according to James.
“Yeah, it proves we can get the job done but we can’t let the success we had against other people think that it’s going to be the same against Michigan tomorrow. We have to turn the page. We have to do what we practice, like I said, over and over again. If we execute the scout that we’re given I feel like we’re putting ourselves in a really good position but we have proven we can do it. We’ve just got to do it again.”
This team is not having to search far for goals or motivation, as they create that themselves. Tennessee has found different ways to go at opponents all season, whether it be because they felt disrespected in a previous matchup or that they are just oozing with confidence. Creating their own narrative has been the calling card for this team all season.
This team has always been different, especially with Zeigler becoming a force off the bench. His confidence is contagious and his teammates recognize it every day. Just last week in Tampa, Zeigler brought out a pair of sunglasses that he had stored in his bag, close enough that a team manager could go snag them once the championship game went final. He’s fun to be around according to teammates, knowing when to turn it off and when to bring out that killer instinct.
Speaking of those glasses, Josiah-Jordan James was asked what he thought when Zeigler showed up on the court with the sunglasses that seemed to fit his personality.
“My reaction — he wears those glasses all the time. I can’t really say I was surprised. I was surprised that he got them out there, I didn’t know he had them. But my reaction was, it’s just Zakai being Zakai. You would have to ask him where they came from. I don’t know.”
It was Zeigler who came back and answered the question for James, in the most Zakai way.
“I had them in my bag already and I asked them to get them for me. I was planning on doing that for a few days, I’m not going to lie.”
But Zeigler keeps his fun-natured manner tucked away until the time is right. On the court, he plays like a ferocious pit bull, waiting to attack. If the Vols can continue getting the calm and collected Zeigler to bring that fight, especially against Michigan, this team could be playing for a few more weeks.
So heading into tonight’s game with Michigan, there won’t be any type of trash talk or pregame exchanging of words. Tennessee is focused on checking off another box on their list of aspirations, with Zakai Zeigler saying that they still have many more goals in front of them.
“We know what the next step is. We won the SEC Championship, we was pumped about it. We had the next day off, we knew it was our time, happy about it, but day after that we had to lock in, we knew what was at risk. We have a couple more games to win. We want bigger and better things. The conference championship was pretty big for us, now we have to do more. Next step.”
Tennessee is still looking to finish the job tonight in Indianapolis, then they can start worrying about other goals on the list.