Rexrode: Tennessee basketball is legit, like the Vols freshman who just cut up Kentucky

Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler (5) gestures to fans he can't hear them during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 76-63. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
By Joe Rexrode Feb 16, 2022 23
Zakai Zeigler is the story of this Tennessee men’s basketball season because the origin story is so appealing — the best ones are usually centered in Gotham, right? — and because he’s the one with the fearlessness to do the most talking and shoving in a bench scrum of much taller people. Because he’s the one with the toughness to come away with the basketball in a floor scrum of much stronger people, and the one with the presence to advance it to a teammate for a dunk.

He’s the one with the game that can stand out, consistently, among nine much more higher-ranked people. He’s almost always the shortest and most overlooked out there. The (generously listed at) 5-foot-9 freshman point guard from Long Island, N.Y., is, to quote ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes in the first half of No. 13 Tennessee’s 76-63 rout of No. 3 Kentucky on Tuesday, in a line that infuriated at least one writer who believed he had an original thought: “The Grant Williams of this program.”

At some point, it would be nice for the Tennessee program to have another team achieve something so that any good thing that happens isn’t automatically compared to Williams and his legendary teams of 2017-18 and 2018-19. This could be the one. And Zeigler, by the time he’s done with what will probably be a four-year career with the Vols, could be as beloved as any Tennessee men’s basketball player not named Ernie or Bernie. That includes Williams. That’s the ability this young man already has to make plays and lead and scrap and win and inspire overreaction.

Zeigler is far from the only thing going on here, of course.