It didn’t take long for the latest addition to the Tennessee basketball program to be thrown in the fire.
Last Saturday, hours before the Vols hosted Wisconsin, four-star point guard signee Santiago Vescovi arrived in Knoxville from his native country of Uruguay. Two days later, on Monday, Vescovi went through his first practice with Tennessee. Then, on Friday, he was cleared by NCAA to play.
A day after being given the green light, Vescovi was in the starting lineup to begin conference play for the Vols.
“I started thinking about it the first day he got here, because I was really taken back by what he knew about our offense,” Rick Barnes said of the decision to start Vescovi against LSU a week after arriving in Knoxville. “I was totally surprised
“We knew after a few days it was inevitable he was going to be a starter. So, we said, ‘Why not do it now?’”
It didn’t take long for Vescovi to have an impact. With 17:13 remaining in the first half against the Tigers, he hit back-to-back threes to give Tennessee a 10-7 lead. Vescovi would go on to score a game-high 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the 3-point line. He finished 6-of-13 from the field as all of his made shots came from deep.
“He shot the ball well,” Barnes said. “We obviously wanted to put in some things he was familiar with and he’s used in the past, and we did. We used some of that today.
“The demeanor with our young guys was terrific, and Santiago earned the respect of his teammates the very first day he came out there.”
In addition to Vescovi’s scoring outburst, he grabbed six rebounds and dished out four assists in 32 minutes of action. He also picked up a steal.
Vescovi struggled taking care of the basketball and on the defensive end of the floor, however. He had a game-high nine turnovers and picked up three fouls.
“His turnovers hurt, and he knows it,” Barnes said. “A lot of that had to do with fatigue. That was probably my fault leaving him out there too long, because he looked tired.
“But the best part about that was that I thought Josiah James was really locked in today. The coaches told me when they walked out of the locker room, Josiah was saying (to Santiago), ‘Hey, you’re going to be all right. If you get tired and need help at the point, I’ll do it.’ When your young guys start talking like that, you feel good.”
Part of the reason Vescovi was able to have success scoring the basketball and creating for his teammates was because of his knowledge of the offense prior to arriving in Knoxville. One of the student managers had sent him film of the offense to watch, and Vescovi spent hours studying it.
Vescovi’s ability to pick up the offense on his own gives Barnes confidence that he’ll be a really good basketball player for the Vols.
“He’s going to make some mistakes, and we’re going to live with it because he’s trying to start the season in the middle of the season, and his first game was a conference game,” Barnes said. “There’s no doubt that everybody saw that he’s got a chance to be a terrific player, and he’s a guy who wants to distribute the ball
“He’s competitive, but he just got tired. The only way he’s going to get in shape, though, is he’s going to need to play his way in shape right now. We knew that.”
James did his best to take pressure off of Vescovi. The fellow freshman guard chipped in 15 points on 3-of-5 shooting from three and grabbed five rebounds. When Vescovi needed a breather, James stepped up and handled the basketball.
“Today was definitely a tough game,” James said. “We wish we could have had it, but looking at the big picture, we had some really good moments out there.
“With us being freshmen, we’ve got a lot of time ahead of us. We see where we have to get better, and we see the good things that we’ve done and where we can get in our areas and our spots, where we can feed off of each other.”
Tennessee now sits at 8-5 on the season after their 78-64 loss to LSU to begin conference play. The Vols have now lost four of their last five games, but Vescovi’s arrival has sparked a basketball team that needs to get things in gear quickly if they’re going to make something out of this season.
UT will be back in action on Tuesday night when they takes on Missouri and former head coach Cuonzo Martin. Tip-off is stated for 7 p.m.