Rick Barnes turned to junior point guard Zakai Zeigler seven minutes into Tennessee basketball’s 80-42 season opening win over Tennessee Tech.
It was go time.
Zeigler checked into the game for the first time in 251 days. The 5-foot-9 point guard, who Josiah-Jordan James dubbed the “heart and soul of the team”, limped off the The Summitt with tears in his eyes on the final day of February.
A torn ACL ended Zeigler’s sophomore season but the New York native’s diligent rehab got him back on the court for the first regular season game of his junior year. He was welcomed by raucous cheers from a modest opening night crowd at the now Food City Center.
“I’ve been waiting for that moment since the day I went down, but just felt really good to be back for Vol Nation and for my brothers” Zeigler said Wednesday.
The drama free victory over an outmatched Tennessee Tech team produced minimal fan engagement and loud moments. Zeigler’s return to the court induced the biggest cheer of the night. And during a 38-point victory, Zeigler’s return was the story of the night.
“I honestly didn’t know how I could picture it in my head,” Zeigler said of the applause. “But when it happened it was just a really good feeling.”
It was a short debut for Zeigler. He played just 13 minutes in the lopsided win due to doctors orders. Barnes, Tennessee’s ninth-year coach, was taking orders from the Vols’ training staff on when to remove Zeigler from the game despite Zeigler being an active participant in Tennessee practices in recent weeks.
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“He’s actually done more in practice than he did the game tonight,” Barnes said postgame. “He’s responded well to that, but we just, again, we said all along we’re gonna be cautious.”
Zeigler posted a modest three points (one-of-four shooting) and four assist performance but did all the little things the undersized point guard’s done in his first two seasons that make him one of the SEC’s most valuable players.
“He changes the floor every time he gets out there,” Barnes said. “He changes the floor on both ends of the court, whether it’s offense, defense.”
The game wasn’t without some excitement from the lightning quick guard. A steal and transition alley oop gave Zeigler a familiar feeling on the court.
“It kind of reminded me a little bit of Texas game, even though I didn’t come up with a steal and throw a pass or anything like that,” Zeigler said of the play. “But just that energy, it just gave me a quick reminder of something like that and just to tell everybody like, yo, I’m back on the court. I’m here. I’m still me at the end of the day.”
Barnes said that they’ll continue to listen to Tennessee’s medical staff in regards to Zeigler’s minutes limitations though he joked that he’ll want to have “a deaf ear” to some of those cries with the Vols’ staring down a difficult November which includes five games against big six schools and just one more buy game.
The Vols have better backcourt depth and ball handling than they did a year ago when Zeigler went down and are well equipped to slowly work him back. But Zeigler’s return to the court was more about the point guard’s long journey back than the rest of the season.
“But to have four assists and no turnovers, I told him, I said, that’s a great way to start,” Barnes said.