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Mar 19, 2024 2:51 pm

No. 2 seed Tennessee on alert, familiar with Cinderella Saint Peter’s

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Rick Barnes and Tennessee finished a celebratory team meal and then tuned in for the night session opener at the same venue, fully expecting to see Southeastern Conference brethren Kentucky dominating Saint Peter’s on the same court where the Volunteers had just won in Indianapolis.

Instead, the darlings of the 2022 NCAA Tournament were sticking with the No. 2 seed Wildcats and would ultimately deliver a memorable overtime upset to kickstart a run of upsets to the Elite Eight ahead of a loss to eventual national champion North Carolina. Tennessee lost to Michigan in the second round in Indy.

Plenty has changed for the programs, but introductions are unnecessary for Barnes or the Peacocks (19-13), who are back as a No. 15 seed to play SEC regular-season champion Tennessee (24-8), the No. 2 seed in the Midwest making a short trip to Charlotte, N.C., for the opening-round matchup Thursday.

Not only is their familiarity based on their common ground in Indiana two years ago, the game is a family affair pitting Tennessee dynamo Zakai Zeigler against Saint Peter’s freshman Armoni Zeigler, his half-brother.

Zakai Zeigler was recruited heavily by then-Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway but landed a late summertime offer from Barnes that panned out for both sides. It’s the same type of sway Barnes exacted to bring in transfer-turned-offensive cheat code Dalton Knecht prior to his season. Knecht is a self-made NBA prospect Barnes brought to Knoxville by way of Northeastern Junior College and Northern Colorado.

The SEC Player of the Year is averaging 21.1 points, hitting almost 40 percent of his attempts behind the 3-point line, with takeover talent Barnes hasn’t had since coaching Kevin Durant with the Texas Longhorns.

Zakai Zeigler picked up his own scoring down the stretch averaging 17 points in his last five games — four against ranked SEC foes and the loss to Mississippi State in Nashville — and sets the tone defensively.

Defensive efficiency might be Tennessee’s biggest worry at the moment. Saint Peter’s sophomore Corey Washington has three 20-point games in March and put up 24 in the MAAC tournament championship, a run made possible by a pair of two-point victories.

Coach Bashir Mason replaced Holloway and has energized his program with a commitment to each other — and defense. Mason has said if the Peacocks score 60 points, they win.

He’s a cheerleader on the sideline and the Peacocks’ reserves are always on their feet pushing for stops. The offense is willing to grind to evaporate the shot clock with the ball eventually in the hands of Washington, a sophomore who all but demanded being on the roster in 2022-23. It’s the mindset the coaching staff credits for pushing the Peacocks to Charlotte this week.

“Corey is willing to fly from Arkansas on his own dime and try out for a scholarship,” Mason said. “He had no scholarships out of high school, and he worked out with my team, played pickup with my guys, and I asked him what he thought after guys had gotten on the floor bouncing off the walls, no out of bounds, no fouls. The kid walked up to me and said, ‘I love it here.'”

Tennessee’s history, and more specifically the NCAA Tournament record of Barnes, contributes to pundits marking the Vols for an upset alert early in the bracket. Barnes has lost to a lower-seeded team in 16 of his 27 appearances split between Tennessee and Texas.

“I told our team, I said, if I were at Saint Peter’s right now, it’d be the first thing I’d put up right there,” Barnes said. “Say look what happened, it can be done. And we know it can be done now at every level.”

–Field Level Media

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