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The Starting Five: Villanova And North Carolina

Tennessee Basketball
Tennessee Basketball pregame. Photo via Tennessee Athletics.

After each week of the season that Tennessee plays at least two games, “The Starting Five” on Monday will analyze the previous week of play from the Big Orange while highlighting questions Tennessee is facing in the coming weeks in five subheadings.

The Vols had a successful trip to Uncasville, Connecticut splitting games against No. 5 Villanova and No. 18 North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off.

Tennessee heads back home to Knoxville ranked as the No. 15 team in the AP Poll and No. 11 team in KenPom.

Now, on to the starting five.

That’s Why You Play Top Competition Early

Villanova shellacked Tennessee in its first real test of the 2021-22 season, 71-53.  It was a poor performance by the Vols, but even two days removed from the loss it’s hard to see how it was a bad thing for Tennessee.

Obviously, you’d rather win than lose but falling to a top five Villanova team — no matter the discrepancy — isn’t going to hurt your resume. The NCAA Tournament committee isn’t going to punish Tennessee for losing to a team that will likely end up on the one or two line.

In fact, most advanced metrics and rankings will have Tennessee higher due to the strength of schedule boost it provides. The downside of losing a game like that isn’t very detrimental.

As Rick Barnes said last week, you can’t win big games if you don’t play big games. 

That’s the upside to playing in these types of events with top 15 quality programs. The day after losing to Villanova, Tennessee throttled a blue blood on national television. Even when it’s a down UNC team, a win like that does more good things for your program than a loss to Villanova does bad.

And there’s no guarantee that Tennessee beats North Carolina without the humiliating defeat. That lopsided loss gave Rick Barnes’ the attention of his young team real fast. Learning the intensity that you have to play with against good teams and how small the margin for error is against great ones is very beneficial for this team.

The Vols still have four more non conference challenges before they open SEC play at Alabama on Dec. 29. Those matchups should have this young team as prepared as possible for the conference gauntlet.

That Zakai Zeigler Changes Tennessee’s Ceiling

Nearly everyone played well in Tennessee’s 89-72 bounceback win over North Carolina. However, Zakai Zeigler stole the show.

A New York City kid went into Big East country and was the best player on the court in his fourth college game. Remember, Zakai Zeigler was a senior in high school who didn’t know he was going to graduate early and come to Tennessee until MID AUGUST.

Three months ago, Zeigler was an unknown name to Tennessee fans and the college basketball world. No longer. 

The 5-foot-9 point guard set career highs in minutes (28), points (18) and assists (5). Zeigler was completely in control of the game, made 70% of his shots and didn’t turn the ball over— even toying with pressing Carolina defenders in the game’s final minutes.

Zeigler was brilliant against North Carolina, but what does it mean for this team going forward?

Ideally, Zeigler grows into a player that can handle big minutes, consistently score in double figures and plays with the pace and control that he did against the Tar Heels.

From what I’ve seen of Zeigler in games and practice, I don’t think that’s an impossible ask. However, it is a big ask and may be too much for a young player over the course of a 31-game regular season.

Here’s what Tennessee does need from Zeigler, a solid backup point guard who can keep Santiago Vescovi off the ball and create penetration that makes the defense move.

Through the first three games of the season, Kennedy Chandler was the only Tennessee player that could break a defender down off the dribble and create scoring opportunities for a teammate.

Tennessee is running more offense through ball screens than they have at any other point in the Rick Barnes’ era. They need someone besides Chandler who can be an effective ball handler in those situations. Zeigler is the most likely person to do that.

If Zeigler becomes the 10 points, 3.5 assists per game player mentioned above and plays serious minutes with Chandler on the court, watch out. Tennessee’s offense can be really dangerous and hard to defend.


Purdue Head Coach Matt Painter

Tennessee’s Defense Holds Up

One of my biggest questions entering the weekend was how Tennessee’s defense would hold up in its first major challenges of the season.

The Vols’ defense did what it needed to do in both games of the event. Villanova was able to exploit some things including Tennessee’s guards’ lack of size, but the Vols’ ball defense was better than I expected.

Against North Carolina, Tennessee’s defense was fantastic holding the Tar Heels to 72 points despite 45% shooting from three-point range.

The Vols’ guarded inside the arc at a high level, recorded nine steals leading to 19 fast break points and blocked four shots.

This came with Chandler and Zeigler playing significant minutes together. Just 10 days ago, Barnes said he didn’t think the two understood off ball defense well enough to play together for an extended amount of time. They held up just fine on defense against the Tar Heels.

Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Santiago Vescovi — more on him below — are two other guys that impressed me with their defense.

Through four games, Tennessee is fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.

What To Make Of The Frontcourt?

Like the whole Tennessee team, it was a tale of two games for the Vols’ frontcourt in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off.

Against Villanova, Tennessee got zero production from its frontcourt as John Fulkerson, Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield combined for just six points.

Against North Carolina, John Fulkerson was fantastic and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield looked much better. The Vols’ frontcourt combined for 30 points.

So what to make of the Vols’ frontcourt coming out of the weekend? Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Offensively, Nkamhoua doesn’t seem like the player that dominated ETSU two Sundays ago. Still, Nkamhoua has vastly improved upon his defense and rebounding. While I don’t think he’s going to give Tennessee double digits night in and night out, I could see Nkamhoua vastly improving on offense over the course of the season as he gets more comfortable and learns his role.

With Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, the talent is clear but so is the room for growth. How much he can improve over the course of the season will drastically shift this team’s potential. He’s the most talented forward on the roster.

Uros Plavsic has improved but I just don’t think he can be a consistent staple of Tennessee’s rotation. Use him to steal a few minutes every game and play him when starters are in foul trouble? Sure, but I think it’s a folly for Tennessee to rely on him every night.

Plavsic’s defensive limitations are still too obvious. North Carolina went right at him when he was on the floor and he fouled three times in eight first half minutes.

Lastly, Fulkerson is the mystery of this group to me — which is a hilarious statement to make about a sixth year senior. Still, Fulkerson showed flashes of that All-SEC level player he showed two seasons ago against North Carolina.

I’m interested to see what he can do consistently in the two-man game with Chandler and Zeigler when he’s back in a groove (Fulkerson missed nearly a month with a broken thumb leading up to the ETSU game).

Time To Believe Rick Barnes About Santiago Vescovi?

Rick Barnes said multiple times this preseason that Santiago Vescovi was the most improved player on Tennessee’s roster.

On its surface, that statement made sense. Vescovi’s career began in the middle of the 2019-20 season then his first offseason basically wasn’t a thing because of COVID-19.

It was “why” Vescovi was better that puzzled me. Barnes, Vescovi and Josiah Jordan James said he was better on defense with Vescovi saying part of the reason was he was quicker.

When asked how he improved his quickness, Vescovi didn’t have an answer. That made me skeptical that Vescovi had really made big strides forward on the defensive end, especially for someone who’s issues revolved around his lack of quickness.

What’s the saying? “Rick Barnes has forgotten more basketball than I’ll ever know?”

Four games in and it seems like it’s time to start believing Barnes about Vescovi’s growth. The junior guard is better on defense. The southpaw appears quicker though I believe some of that is due to him getting in elite shape.

Vescovi is no longer a liability on the defensive end and in fact one of the Vols’ better perimeter defenders.

Vescovi’s active hands and ability to get in passing lanes are showing up too. Through four games, the Uruguay native has eight steals.

The point guard turned shooting guard was pretty solid on offense this weekend too, averaging 20 points per game. 

Vescovi did just about everything well this weekend but his competitiveness and hard nosed style of play stood out the most. The 6-foot-3 guard without high end athleticism had 15 rebounds in two games. That tells you all you need to know about the intensity Vescovi is playing with so far this season.

“Santi did yeoman’s work for us the last two days,” Barnes said.

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