Tennessee basketball’s ability to blend returning pieces with new pieces is one of the interesting progressions to watch in the early season.
And as the Vols’ put the closing touches on an 80-70 win over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center on Friday night, Tennessee did that just fine.
There were slight deviations, and we’ll discuss those in a minute, but Tennessee’s winning time lineup against Wisconsin was Zakai Zeigler, Santiago Vescovi, Dalton Knecht, Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo. Here’s what it told us.
Rick Barnes Trust In Zakai Zeigler Is Steadfast
Zakai Zeigler didn’t play well against Wisconsin. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said as much postgame.
“He was trying too hard early,” Barnes said. “Over dribbling the ball.”
Zeigler scored five points on one-of-five shooting against Wisconsin while recording three assists and three turnovers. For many Barnes’ point guards, that performance would land them on the bench. But not for Zeigler who was on an 18-minute limit in his second game after returning from a torn ACL.
“In the last minute someone said, coach, he’s at 18 minutes. And I said, well, he’s finishing this game because if I’d taken him out. He would’ve killed me,” Barnes joked.
It wasn’t a great night for Zeigler, but Barnes trust in him is steadfast. That much is clear.
It’s no secret that Dalton Knecht is still learning and trying to improve on the defensive end of the court. Knecht would tell you that himself.
So it wasn’t a massive surprise to see Barnes sub in Jahmai Mashack on defense and Knecht on offense during a multiple possession stretch in the final four minutes.
Knecht ended up taking Tennessee to the finish line but it was an interesting, though not entirely unsurprising, move from Barnes. The Vols have depth and versatility. I doubt that’s the last time we see Tennessee do that this season.
Knecht The Closer
Tennessee’s offense in the final minutes of the game was reminiscent to Doug Collins talking about Michael Jordan.
Knecht isn’t Michael Jordan, but he’s pretty darn good. That’s who the Vols went to in their final possessions before Wisconsin began fouling.
The Northern Colorado transfer delivered too. There was a contested midrange fallaway as the shot clock expired and a contested drive by bucket to all but ice the win.
Tennessee has lacked the perimeter player that they can give the ball to in isolation situations and count on to go get a basket during winning time under Rick Barnes. If the Wisconsin game was any indication, Knecht is just that.
That skillset is invaluable in end of game situations. Especially in March.
Jonas Aidoo Proves To Be The Anchor
Jonas Aidoo was Tennessee’s best front court player against Wisconsin, but Tobe Awaka had the hot hand in the game’s final 10 minutes. Still, the Vols turned to Aidoo in the closing minutes.
I tend not to read too much into this other than that Aidoo has been Tennessee’s best big man so far this season and this decision was a product of that.
Aidoo’s defense is definitely ahead of Awaka’s and that rim protection is particularly important when Tennessee runs four-guard lineups.
This one could change a lot from game-to-game but was still a somewhat telling move given how well Awaka played in the second half.
Tennessee Stays Small
One question I asked this preseason is what does Tennessee do in close games this season. Will Barnes stick to his guns and play the small ball lineup that’s better offensively? Or will he go with the better defensive lineup and play two bigs while capping the offense’s potential?
Against a team trying to score inside, Barnes stuck to his guns and played the small ball lineup. That’s another sign that Tennessee’s offensive improvement is here to stay.
One final thought semi related to this point is that Cade Phillips played big minutes from the 10-minute to five-minute mark. It wasn’t quite winning time yet but it was still late in a tight road game and Barnes trusted the true freshman.
“We have a lot of versatile pieces that can help us in the court offensively, but also defensively switching,” Tobe Awaka said. “We’re able to play different lineups, big, small, things of that nature. So we’re just really all around. We have everything.”