Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes isn’t one to heap over the top or unearned praise on his players. Sure, Barnes will say nice things about his players when it’s warranted, but the 36th year college head coach isn’t one to speak in hyperbole.
Needless to say, Barnes was speaking truthfully when he wondered out loud whether sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler and senior guard Santiago Vescovi were the best duo in the country.
“I’m not sure there’s a better tandem right now in college basketball in terms of what those guys are doing and certainly what Z’s done as a point guard and taking care of the ball, getting assists,” Barnes said Monday.
Vescovi and Zeigler can score the basketball. The duo ranks first (Vescovi) and second (Zeigler) in scoring for the Vols totaling 12.2 and 11.2 points per game respectively.
But that’s not what Barnes believes makes the duo so special.
“They can score the ball but they’re both very unselfish and the fact is they don’t have to score,” Barnes said.
What makes them such an elite duo is the way they impact winning night-in and night-out. The duo is going to show up on the defensive end and make life difficult at best and miserable at worst for opposing backcourts.
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According to college basketball analytics guru Evan Miyakawa and his Baynesian Defensive Performance Rating, Zeigler is the nation’s seventh best defender and Vescovi is the nation’s 16th best defender.
The duo combines for 4.5 steals per game and both rank in the top 40 nationally of steal percentage.
“He and Santi impacted winning, impact games whether they score or not,” Barnes said. “What they do on the defensive end and then you put Zakai, what he’s doing now, how he’s playing more minutes than maybe he should be right now. It’s a great testament to him that he’s willing to embrace what we’re asking him to do, which means changing what he has to do.”
Zeigler changing what he does entails developing into a true past first point guard. Always a scoring guard that ran the point, the scrappy sophomore has changed his mindset and is averaging a SEC best 7.3 assists per game in conference play. The Long Island, New York native has upped his game to a whole new level since Tennessee’s loss against Kentucky. In those four games, Zeigler is averaging 17.3 points, 7.8 assists, 2.8 steals and just 2.3 turnovers per game.
“I’m not sure there’s a guard in the country that has impacted the game as much as he has, especially in the month of January,” Barnes said. “I mean, he has been terrific, every area that you could ask him to be. Zakai is very unselfish. He’s a tough, hard-nosed competitor that just wants to win. But he has really embraced the fact that he does want to play the game different than he had through the years.”
So, how about Barnes’ claim that the backcourt is the nation’s best tandem? EvanMiya‘s BPR ranks Vescovi as the nation’s seventh best player and Zeigler as the 16th best player.
Only Houston, with guard Marcus Sasser (third) and forward Jarace Walker (10th), boasts a duo that ranks higher. Ironically, Julian Phillips ranks fifth nationally in BPR and gives Tennessee three of the top 16 players.
What’s for certain is that Vescovi and Zeigler play off each other extremely well and combine for one of the nation’s best backcourt tandems. Rick Barnes, never one for hyperbole, believes they may just be the nation’s top tandem.