Tennessee got back in the win column Saturday night, making easy work of South Carolina with a 85-45 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Josiah-Jordan James returned to the lineup, Zakai Zeigler shined and the Vols never trailed.
Here’s three quick takeaways on a lopsided victory.
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Welcome Back Josiah-Jordan James
Josiah-Jordan James checked into the game out of the under 16 timeout for the first time since Feb. 8 against Vanderbilt. South Carolina came out in its 1-3-1 defense, James caught the ball open in the left corner and smoothly let it fly.
James first possession back was a telling sign for his performance the rest of the night. Playing just 10 first half minutes, the senior wing was the best player on the court scoring 10 points on four-of-five shooting from the field.
The senior missed just one-of-three attempts and even had an impressive finish at the basket on what should have been an and-one.
James added eight more points in the second half on two triples and a tough midrange bucket. In his return to the lineup, James shot seven-of-11 from the field and four-of-seven from deep.
That Josiah-Jordan James completely changes Tennessee’s ceiling because of it means for the Vols’ offense. On top of just making shots, it makes Tennessee’s four guard lineup (with James at the four) extremely dangerous.
James shooting that well is far from a guarantee, however. The forward made just two-of-24 three-pointers in the five games before his injury. Expecting James to shoot 57% down the stretch is unrealistic, but getting something in the middle of those two numbers makes the Vols a far better team.
Tennessee Gets The Zakai Zeigler We Saw In January
A part of Tennessee’s offensive struggles this month has been the struggles and inconsistencies of point guard Zakai Zeigler. Against South Carolina, Zeigler looked like the player we saw in January that was dominant and one of the best guards in the conference.
The sophomore recorded his fifth double-double of SEC play, totaling 13 points and 11 assists in the lopsided win.
Not only was it a double-double but an efficient double-double for Zeigler. The point guard shot five-of-seven from the field (three-of-four from three) and tallied just two turnovers to go along with his 13 assists.
Granted, it was against a bad South Carolina team, but Zeigler playing the way he did combined with James’ shooting previously discussed makes the Vols look like a completely different offense.
That was evident in Tennessee’s 85 point outing that saw them score 1.574 points per possession on 58% shooting from the field and 44% shooting from the perimeter.
An easy to overlook part of Zeigler’s big night was his ability to stay out of foul trouble. That’s plagued the Vols’ lone point guard this month and he stayed out of it all night, not picking up a single one in the win.
A Thorough, Dominating Defensive Performance
Tennessee’s top-rated defense did to South Carolina’s offense what it did to every overmatched mid-major team it faced in the pre-conference slate.
The Vols completely suffocated the Gamecocks, holding them to 45 points on just .818 points per possession.
South Carolina struggled to get good looks all game and its shooting percentages back it up. The Gamecocks made just 35% of shots from the field and 18% of shots from three-point range.
Tennessee did a fantastic job on star South Carolina freshman G.G. Jackson. The five-star recruit totaled just five points on two-of-12 shooting from the field. Sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack spent more time guarding him than anyone else and played his usual fantastic defense.
Mashack also quietly put together a strong offensive performance. There was very little that wasn’t impressive about Tennessee’s performance against South Carolina but the defense was stout.
Tennessee remains home for Tuesday night’s Senior Day matchup against Arkansas. Tip-off from Thompson-Boling Arena is at 9 p.m. ET. ESPN2 is broadcasting the game.