Rich with talent, UT’s men’s and women’s hoops teams must figure out how to jell at tournament time
Last February, the UT men beat the No. 1 team in the nation (Alabama) then suffered the heartbreaking loss of point guard Zakai Zeigler. In March Madness, the Vols beat Duke to make the Sweet 16, only to lose to Florida Atlantic. The Lady Vols beat eventual national champion LSU in the SEC tournament semis, lost to mighty South Carolina in the final. They made the Sweet 16 but lost to Virginia Tech. Both teams have added promising new weapons faces but need to figure out the right lineups to get to the Elite 8, or further.
Zeigler is the Heart; James the Connector. Zeigler, an All-SEC defender, returned to the floor against Tennessee Tech in November. He made an acrobatic steal, weaved his way down the floor, and lobbed a pass that freshman forward J.P. Estrella dunked in grand style. After the game Coach Rick Barnes quoted fifth-year senior Josiah-Jordan James: “Josiah said, ‘Coach, we gotta give the guy the game ball because he’s the heart and soul of the team.’— and he is.”
After a December win over George Mason, when James had 14 points, six rebounds, six assists, and three steals, Barnes described him as a “connector” for the offense. Last year James, coming back from an injury, seemed tentative at times. This year he moves more quickly and confidently. Through mid-December he was averaging 11.4 points and 6.6 rebounds and hitting 40% of his threes.
Like Jordan-James, the smooth-shooting All-SEC guard from Montevideo, Uruguay, Santiago Vescovi decided to return for his fifth season. Over four seasons, he has hit 38.1% of his threes.
Dalton Knecht (pronounced “connect”), a 6’ 6” gift from the transfer portal, provides behind-the-back dribbles, flashy dunks, reverse layups, 39.1% of his threes. “He is the All-American no one saw coming,” wrote CJ Moore of The Athletic. He had 28 points in an exhibition win at Michigan State, 24 in a win at Wisconsin, and—while the rest of the team floundered in a 100-92 loss at North Carolina—Knecht 37 on just 17 shots. “He’s a gym rat,” Barnes told Trevor McGee of the Daily Beacon over the summer. “I think he has been in the gym every day since he’s been here.”
Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Knecht grew up in the Denver suburb of Thornton, Colorado. After high school, he played two seasons at Northeastern (Colorado) Junior College, then two at the University of Northern Colorado, where he led the Big Sky Conference in scoring. He came to UT 1) because his favorite player, Kevin Durant, played for Barnes at Texas, and 2) because he wanted to become a better defender, which Barnes is pushing him to do.
Jordan Gainey, another portal gift, transferred from South Carolina Upstate after two seasons of shooting the lights out. “He plays with a high basketball IQ and is a guy who makes his teammates better,” said Barnes to the Beacon’s McGee. Gainey’s dad also happens to be the Vols’ assistant coach Justin Gainey. “I’ve never had my dad as a coach,” Gainey told Beacon sports editor Caleb Jarreau, “but at the same time I think it’s pretty cool because whenever I’m on the court, it’s strictly business, and he does not really seem father-son. It’s more player-coach. I treat him just like I would any other coach.”
In a bright spot in a 100-92 loss at UNC, with UT trailing 61-39 at the half, 6-foot-11 forward Jonas Aidoo beat Armando Bacot on a slick pick-and-roll, got a nifty pass from Vescovi, and drew a foul. “I truly think Jonas is going to play his way this year into being one of the best post guys in the country,” said Barnes. Aidoo, who has a wingspan of 7 feet, six inches, has more than 415,000 followers on Tik Tok. “It’s having an open personality, being bright hearted,” he explained last year. “I always want to put a smile on people’s faces.”
In an 80-70 November win at Wisconsin, 6-foot-8 forward Tobe Awaka, a supply chain management major from Hyde Park, New York, made a key block, three key buckets, and—diving for a ball—threw himself into the Badger fans. He did not come up with the ball. “It was a valiant effort, though, I thought,” said Awaka afterward. Said James, “You get tired of playing against Tobe in practice because he’s such a relentless player on both ends of the floor.”
Versatile guard Jahmai Mashack delights in shutting down hotshots like Bama’s Brandon Miller (now in the NBA), Purdue’s 7-foot-4 Zach Edey (reigning Naismith Player of the Year), and Terrence Shannon Jr. of Illinois. Mashack “doesn’t need shots to affect the game,” wrote Mike Wilson of the News Sentinel. “He’ll create his own plays and set up others.” Against the Illini, Mashack had a timely baseline drive and dished assists to Knecht and Vescovi for 3-pointers. “He dashed in for a mini-hook. He drew a team-high five fouls and had three assists. He had nine points, five of which were on free throws.” He made both his field-goal attempts. “I have the confidence that I can adjust,” Mashack said. “Big thing for me and I think the main thing that if you think of Jahmai Mashack, you think of resilience. I have that through and through.”
The Lady Vols Depend on the Electric Rickea
The Lady Vols graduated Jordan Horston but return forward Rickea Jackson, an electric All-SEC playmaker who grabbed six rebounds a game last season and simply can’t be stopped when she decides to score, good for 19.2 points a game last season. When Jackson missed a few games with an ankle injury in November and December, the team looked lost.
Fifth-year point guard Jasmine Powell had worked on improving her defense. “Her defense is crazy,” said Jackson at SEC Media Day. “I’ll put her on anybody. You need somebody to guard? I’m picking JP.” Powell has help in floor-generaling from Jewell Spear and Destinee Wells, senior transfers from Wake Forest and Belmont, respectively.
Spear, a 5-foot-10 guard, makes things happen, creates shots, takes it to the hoop, communicates, and rebounds. She hit three 3-pointers in a row and scored 20 points in her debut, against Florida A&M. “Her hitting all those threes is just her dipping her toe in the water,” said Coach Kellie Harper. “She is a great teammate, with a lot of personality and natural ability.”
In her Lady Vols debut against Florida A&M, Wells whipped a no-look pass to post Karoline Striplin, one of six assists against the Rattlers. “Destinee’s assists make us look good,” said Harper. “She makes such good decisions with the basketball. She has so much basketball savvy, a great IQ, and connects with people in transition and half court.” Unfortunately, Wells suffered a season-ending leg injury in late December.
Senior wing Tess Darby, a reliable defender and communicator on the floor, hits 40% of her threes when the team is in sync. In the Lady Vols’ mostly out-of-sync first nine games, she hit an uncharacteristic .261 from behind the line. Kaiya Wynn, a junior guard from Richmond, Texas, uses her athleticism and hustle as a much-needed hustling defensive stopper.
Sara Puckett, a versatile 6’2” guard/forward, spent much of the summer in the weight room. As a result, she has upped all aspects of her game—as a rebounder and under the basket, making turnaround jumpers and putbacks through defenders’ slapping arms. “I gained all this strength,” said Puckett after grabbing eight rebounds and scoring 24 points in an 84-74 overtime win over Memphis. “I thought I might as well use it.” Said Harper, “Sara is a warrior, doing good things on both ends of the court.”
Last December, when 6-foot-6 shot-blocker Tamari Key was diagnosed with blood clots in her lungs, Striplin, a 6’3” forward-center from Hartford, Alabama, stepped up and began making big plays, rebounds, and putbacks under the basket. This year she, like Puckett, has taken her game to a new level. Early in the opener against Florida A&M, she initiated a nifty give-and-go that gave her a layup –two of her 20 points for that game. She is active away from the ball, has great hands, is a sure shot down low, and has a good touch on threes. In the Lady Vols’ 73-62 December meltdown at Middle Tennessee State, Striplin scored 29 points, including four threes, and, wrote News Sentinel beat writer Cora Hall, “seemingly was the only one who had the will to win.” Her dad, Jim Bob, plays in a Beatles cover band and assists his wife, Karie, the hoops coach at Geneva County High in Alabama.
Key is returning slowly from her bout with blood clots, as tackle Trey Smith did with the football Vols several years ago. It is instructive that Smith has been starring on the Kansas City Chiefs’ line since 2021. In the meantime, 6-foot-5 center Jillian Hollingshead, who dribbles and shoots like a guard and rebounds like a Marvel hero, has gained the confidence to be the post player she can be, grabbing seven rebounds a game. “Jillian is on the boards like a beast,” said Puckett after the Memphis game. “She’s stepped up, showing who she really is.”