Tennessee’s backcourt veterans struggled in the Vols’ three November losses. But the trio of Zakai Zeigler, Jahmai Mashack and Santiago Vescovi played winning basketball as No. 17 Tennessee knocked off No. 20 Illinois 86-79 on Saturday afternoon.
Mashack played only three minutes in the first half but proved crucial in 12 second half minutes. He stuffed the stat sheet in the game’s final 20 minutes, scoring seven points on two shots, grabbing three rebounds and tossing three assists. Mashack teamed up with Dalton Knecht to send the sold out Thompson-Boling Arena crowd into a frenzy in the second half, grabbing a rebound and finding Knecht for a triple that capped a 10-0 run.
With players in-and-out of the lineup early in the season, Mashack’s role has frequently changed.
“It has been very difficult to try and figure out your role,” Mashack said. “Just since I have been here, I have changed so much and I have fit into so many different gaps and lineups and different positions. That is what I was made to do. I am not running from any challenge no matter what. I have the confidence that I can adjust.”
“I thought Jahmai today played his role to the hilt,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Mashack and Zeigler were both fantastic on the defensive end. Both were big parts of holding Illinois’ All-American candidate Terrence Shannon Jr. to five-of-16 shooting from the field and made tough gritty plays on that end of the court.
“I thought he (Mashack) and both Zakai kind of changed the tide there when they came in with their effort, came up with some loose ball plays that we need,” Barnes said.
Mashack is an important role player on Tennessee’s team but the Vols’ early season losses were highlighted by the lack of production from their Preseason All-SEC starting backcourt.
There were valid reasons for each to struggle. Zakai Zeigler was working back from a torn ACL and Vescovi missed some preseason practice while traveling back home to Uruguay after the death of his grandmother.
More From RTI: Takeaways From Tennessee Basketball’s Win Over Illinois
Zeigler wasn’t spectacular against Illinois but he was very productive. The junior point guard scored 11 points on five shots and dished out four assists without turning it over. Maybe most importantly, he set the tone on the defensive end and provided instant energy.
“We’ve watched him over the last couple weeks get back to (himself), but that’s who he is,” Barnes said. “That’s what endeared him into our fans here. That’s in his DNA.”
Vescovi has shot uncharacteristically poor to open the season but outside of the North Carolina loss his overall play hasn’t been bad. But it was a vintage Vescovi performance against Illinois.
The southpaw sharpshooter threw in two triples, had a flare for the dramatic hitting running jumpers and throwing no look passes. Rick Barnes said Vescovi had an “aggressive mentality” which has been missing at times this season as he’s felt out his new role. Vescovi finished with an efficient 12 passes to go along with nine rebounds, four assists and two steals while not turning it over.
“Santi is a special player,” Mashack said of Vescovi. “I feel like it’s still the same thing and he was trying to find the same thing and find his role and Santi is just amazing on both ends. You can put him in any type of lineup, he’s going to make it work. … Santi is a unique player.”
Mashack touches on an important point on Vescovi which applies to all three veteran guards. They can all be effective players without putting up big point totals. Sure, Tennessee needs them to score some. But the Vols don’t need them to carry the offensive load like they did last season.
All three scored between nine and 12 points without taking a ton of shots. They don’t have to force offense because Tennessee has more options— most notably Dalton Knecht but also Jonas Aidoo.
That’s what’s exciting about this Tennessee team. They’ve proven they can play with the best in the nation with the pieces still gelling and their top returning players struggling.
“I definitely feel like we’re scratching the surface as a team. I don’t think this is no where near as good as we can be,” Mashack said. “Because when it’s time to really win, when we get into March, when we get into the regular season and the big game start becoming bigger, I think that’s when you’re really gonna see how much our team is improved.”