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Tennessee basketball: Zakai Zeigler’s absence leaves an emotional void

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Forget the stat sheet. Replacing Tennessee point guard Zakai Zeigler consists of more than just a few numbers.

Zeigler, who was ruled out for the remainder of the season as expected after suffering a non-contact injury against Arkansas on Tuesday, is undoubtedly the Vols’ emotional leader. He brings the kind of energy that will be hard to manufacture now that he’s no longer available.

“The emotional part of it, that’s going to be tough,” former Vol Ron Slay said during The Dave Hooker Show on Wednesday. 

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Who will the Vols turn to when they need an emotional lift? Josiah-Jordan James seems like the most likely candidate now that he’s healthy. James missed four games with an ankle injury earlier this season but is now ready to assume a larger role.

“I think Josiah can do it because you’ve seen a little bit more emotion out of him as of late when he gets the opportunity to play,” Slay said of James, who is a senior. “I think he sees the window closing. He knows this is his last run and he knows what they need from him…I would have to lean on Josiah to pick that up. I think he is made for it. He’s been in the situation. 

“He can have the responsibility of being an emotional leader, getting guys fired up. I saw him this last game being a little bit more talkative in these last two games. So, I think he can do that.”

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James may end up being the emotional leader that the Vols need in Zeigler’s absence, but it remains to be seen who can be the defensive stopper that Zeigler was known as. That person may not exist.

“Nobody in the nation can fill that,” said Slay, who is an analyst with ESPN and the SEC Network. “I think it’s going to be a collective effort.”

Slay said James and other Vols can mimic Zeigler’s defense in the half-court, but most likely not pressuring the ball in full-court man-to-man defense.

Slay, like many, couldn’t help but hurt for Zeigler, who has long been a fan favorite, much like former Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who suffered a torn ACL against South Carolina last season. Slay also suffered a torn ACL during his time at Tennessee.

“Heartbreaking is the exact way to put it,” Slay said. “The only thing I can remember like this is Hendon Hooker.”

Tennessee doesn’t have long to replace Zeigler. The Vols close out the regular season at Auburn on Saturday before the SEC Tournament next week followed by the NCAA Tournament.

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