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Watching Tennessee Reach Sweet 16 Made Zakai Zeigler Feel ‘Like A Little Kid Again’

Zakai Zeigler
Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler at the Vols’ SEC Tournament practice. Video via Tennessee Athletics.

Zakai Zeigler’s experience watching his teammates earn Tennessee’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2019 and seventh this century reminded him of another time.

“I felt like a little kid again,” Zeigler said Wednesday. “Just watching the game with my mom. Watching March Madness. I just felt like being a little kid again.”

His mother’s Knoxville home wasn’t the place anyone in orange thought Zeigler would be when Tennessee achieved one of its major preseason goals. However,  it was the reality after the sophomore point guard tore his ACL the final week of the regular season and underwent surgery the first week of the NCAA Tournament, keeping him from traveling with his teammates.

“A year. It felt like forever,” Zeigler said of his week away from the team. “When I was laying down in my bed I’m like, ‘man can the week hurry up and end? Can it hurry up and end?'”

Zeigler absence in Orlando was a blow for Tennessee on the court but did provide an extra boost of motivation for his teammates. By advancing to the Sweet 16, Zeigler was able to travel with the team and return to New York City.

“It’s even more exciting to have Zakai back with us in his home state,” senior center Uros Plavsic said. “There’s a great atmosphere around the team.”

“I think it was very important,” fellow New York City native Tobe Awaka said. “We knew sort of the spirits he was in after the surgery. Even prior to when he got injured. It was going to be tough for him mentally so even knowing that he would be here around the guys. I think it means a lot to us and him as well.”

Watching from home gave Zeigler a different perspective on the game. Emotions were higher and it showed Zeigler what watching tight games is like for fans.

“It definitely was a lot more emotional,” Zeigler said. “Especially when times were going up-or-down. I’m yelling at the screen.

“I definitely know how the fans feel because when I was younger I didn’t really see the games like this but now that I’m older and a player— it’s a whole different game. It’s more exciting.”

Perhaps the most exciting thing for Zeigler was watching the performance of senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua. Nkamhoua scored a game-high 27 points including 24 second half points that pushed the Vols past Duke.

“Oh my God. It was amazing,” Zeigler said. “I felt like he didn’t miss at all. He only missed three times. He missed three shots but it felt like he didn’t miss at all. He had a great game. I love when we see that Olivier.”

His favorite Nkamhoua play from his massive performance?

“That put back dunk,” Zeigler said. “The put back dunk because I didn’t see him. I didn’t even see him in that position. It was just crazy on the screen. I forgot who shot it but I was like, ‘it’s over. Get back on d(efense). Get back.’ and he caught it and dunked it and I was like oh my God. I almost hopped out of my bed. My mom was like, ‘woah, relax’ but that definitely was my most excited play.”

The Long Island native returning to New York City unable to play in the NCAA Tournament isn’t how anyone envisioned it. But Zeigler is back in his hometown as Tennessee chases program history.

“For them to give us their all like that to make sure I’m here … it just means a whole lot for me,” Zeigler said.

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