With a stunning victory over No. 1 Alabama, the Vols came together as a team.
With 7:42 to play in the first half against No. 1-ranked Alabama, UT guard Santiago Vescovi dribbled down the left side of the key facing several defenders and lofted a high-arced alley-oop lob into space, high and away from the Bama big man. From out of nowhere, UT’s Finnish forward Olivier Nhamkuoa soared high, extended his right arm, palmed the ball and slammed it home. When his feet hit the floor, he bent his knees, clenched his fists, and howled in triumph. “It was fun,” said a grinning Nkamhuoa after the 68-59 upset.
The intensity of that play will echo during March Madness, along with UT’s relentless defense. Already the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense, the Vols ratcheted their pestering to another level against the Tide, forcing 19 turnovers and keeping Bama to just 17 field goals (its least of the season) and 35.4% shooting from the field (its second lowest).
The D starts with pig-tailed sophomore point guard Zakai Ziegler. Named to last year’s SEC All-Defensive Team, he had a transformational game in a 70-59 comeback win at Mississippi State. With alternate point guards Tyreke Key (fever) and Vescovi (tweaked shoulder) out for the game, Barnes told Zeigler he had to play 40 minutes. Regaining his composure after five early turnovers, Zeigler found a new level of intensity as a floor general, scoring 24 points, six rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Against Bama Zeigler had eight assists and no turnovers. “He’s got to be in the conversation as one of the best point guards in the country,” said Barnes. “What he’s doing now is making his teammates better.”
The big Bama win came with starters Josiah-Jordan James (sprained ankle) and Julian Phillips (tweaked hip flexor) out for the game. Starting in place of James, 6’4” forward Jahmai Mashack was assigned to guard 6’9” freshman Brandon Miller, a likely NBA lottery pick. Despite his five-inch deficit, Mashack held Miller to 15 points while getting three rebounds, two assists, and three steals. In Mashack’s 27+ minutes on the floor, the Vols outscored Bama by nine points, giving him the best +/- margin of any Vol. “Brandon Miller is a pretty good player,” said Zeigler. “But when Jahmai is locked in, it’s hard for anybody to score on him.” Said Vescovi, “His energy is contagious. We’ve got to have that contagious energy all the time.”
Playing in place of Phillips, Jonas Aidoo, 6’11” with a wingspan out of Jurassic World, had 12 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks. Vescovi ended up with 15 points, including three 3s, and eight rebounds against Bama; 7’1” Serbian forward Uros Plavsic was strong in the paint, scoring 10 points, including a three-point play that gave Tennessee a 56-47 lead with just over five minutes left.
Darkest Before the Dawn
Like Churchill’s Britain, Rick Barnes’ Volunteers have faced dark hours, including the two games before Alabama. At Vanderbilt, they lost 66-65 on a 35-foot Hail Mary at the buzzer. Fifteen seconds earlier, Julian Phillips had an open shot that would have sealed the win. “I asked him why he didn’t dunk the ball,” said Barnes. “He said he didn’t know.”
Against Missouri, the Vols fought back from 17 points down, only to lose on another last second trey. Vescovi, usually 100% on free throws late in games, missed a couple in both games. “Santi felt bad,” said Barnes. “Against Missouri, he left the three-point shooter [on the last play]. He knew it. But after those two gut-wrenching losses, these guys didn’t splinter. They stayed resilient.”
On February 18, James and Phillips were still out for UT’s 66-54 post-Bama heartbreak at Kentucky, when the shots, including free throws, simply wouldn’t fall.
Phillips, a McDonald’s All-America freshman, like Zeigler had a coming-of-age transformation at Mississippi State. “He slashed, sliced, and soared on offense,” wrote Mike Wilson of the News Sentinel. “He guarded ferociously. He rebounded tenaciously.” He ended up with 19 points and 11 rebounds and named as the SEC Freshman of the Week. “Just trying to turn up my aggression,” said Phillips.
When the Vols’ offense gets into its flow, seven players can make a good number of their three-pointers. For the Vols to have success in March Madness, James and Phillips must provide the spark to get the offense in its rhythm. “To get anywhere in the NCAA tournament,” said a hoops-savvy former KYS co-coach of mine over dinner, “you’ve got to have that one guy. The question is, can James be that one guy?”