One hundred sixty-five games, 150 starts and 4,870 minutes.
Tennessee seniors Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi are more than college basketball veterans. They’ve been battle tested by nearly everything college basketball can throw at them.
“I think there’s no situation they will see and say ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to attack that. I don’t know how to react to that,’” Tennessee associate head coach Justin Gainey said. “I think at this point they’ve seen it all and they feel comfortable on how they’re going to attack different things.”
From starters on a middle of the road SEC team as freshmen to playing in a chaotic COVID-19 season all the way to leading Tennessee to its first SEC Tournament championship in 43 years.
James and Vescovi have “been through the good and the bad” and, after testing NBA Draft waters, are back for one more season in Knoxville. With unfinished business, the preseason All-SEC duo is looking to lead the Vols to unprecedented heights.
The duo came to Knoxville as members of the 2019 recruiting class but their paths were nothing like one another.
James committed to Tennessee in September 2018, eventually becoming the first five-star recruit Rick Barnes signed in Knoxville. The South Carolina native came to Tennessee with sky high expectations.
Vescovi enrolled in the middle of the season after committing to Tennessee two weeks after the season began. The Montevideo, Uruguay native came to Knoxville from the NBA Global Academy in Australia and had little idea what life in the SEC would present.
“It’s a very emotional environment where a lot of people really feel it when they cheer for a team,” Vescovi said. “We can definitely feel those emotions. … I think it’s very fun and just surprised by how much we can feel the support from Vol nation.”
James and Vescovi’s freshman seasons were promising but rocky. James was an impact defender immediately but not the scorer fans expected due to his five-star billing. And Tennessee needed a scorer after losing Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone to the NBA the previous offseason.
Vescovi brought some of that scoring immediately, hitting seven three-pointers in his first college game— a 14-point loss to LSU. But more than anything, Vescovi gave Tennessee a ball handler it desperately needed after Lamonte Turner underwent season ending shoulder surgery.
Still, the speed and athleticism of the SEC made for a difficult adjustment for the left-handed point guard.
James and Vescovi had both good-and-bad moments as freshmen. However, the Vols were likely to miss to the NCAA Tournament when COVID-19 canceled the event.
There were improvements both personally and as a team in 2020-21 but the results were much the same. After climbing as high as No. 6 in the AP poll in January, Tennessee fizzled down the stretch before 12-seed Oregon State rolled five-seed Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee was looking for more in James and Vescovi’s junior seasons and while the team was promising and played well in the pre-SEC slate, they stumbled out the gates in conference play.
Barnes talked to the media over zoom following Kentucky’s, 107-78, beatdown of Tennessee in Rupp Arena. Barnes was upset with the Vols’ third loss in five games to open conference play, upset with an uncharacteristic abysmal defensive performance and upset with his team’s leadership
“If you ask me, of the guys that started, I’m not really sure I could pinpoint one of them,” Barnes said of his team’s leaders. “Maybe that will be a great lesson for us. That someone will decide enough is enough.”
The loss proved to be the turning point in the season. Tennessee went 16-3 following the loss at Kentucky and Vescovi and James had as much to do with the resurgence as anyone.
Playing almost strictly at shooting guard due to the emergence of freshmen point guards Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler, Vescovi played the best basketball of his career.
The junior earned First Team All-SEC honors by 13.3 points per game on 40% shooting from deep on his way to making more threes in a single season than anyone at Tennessee since Chris Lofton.
Like he had been for much of his career, James was the glue that held Tennessee’s elite defense together. The 6-foot-6 wing could guard nearly everyone on the court and do it at an elite level.
Then he started making shots.
James averaged nearly 14 points per game on 38% shooting from three-point range from the start of February on. During James early season shooting struggles, Barnes had his back and constantly echoed his belief that the shooting would come around.
Fifty eight days after the Kentucky loss Barnes had nothing but praise for his team’s leadership — specifically James and Vescovi — after the Vols cut down the Amalie Arena nets and won the SEC Tournament.
That leadership developed over the course of the season and is back this year from the jump. It’s a major benefit for a team with both a handful of established players and newcomers.
“I wake up in the morning and I’m so thankful we have them,” assistant coach Rod Clark said. “The basketball IQ, the knowledge, the ability to understand what makes each of their teammates tick. How to push them, when to give them space. … They’re great leaders, they really are.”
Vescovi is “is a little bit less vocal than Jo is but he’s more of a lead by example guy” according to Clark. The Uruguay native sets a strong example. A poor defender when he arrived in Knoxville, Vescovi developed into a good defender in large part due to working himself into elite shape.
The 6-foot-3 guard expends an abundance of energy moving without the ball on offense and doesn’t take a possession off on defense, all while playing over 30 minutes a game.
While Vescovi leads by example, James isn’t shy to use his voice. Always quick to encourage a young teammate earning Barnes ire, continuing his growth as a leader was a big emphasis for James this offseason.
“I’ve tried to really make an emphasis on getting to know them as a person, not just as a player,” James said. “We know everybody here is talented but I wanted to get to know B.J. Edwards the person and some of the younger guys coming in and let them know that I am here for whatever they need, both on-and-off the court.”
That knowledge makes it easier for James — one of the nicest people in Tennessee athletics — to be confrontational when needed.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about winning,” James said. “My teammates know that when I’m getting on them or I’m upset with them that it’s coming from a place of I just want them to be at their best so we can be at our best and we can win. Vice versa, I feel like I have gotten better at handling coaching. Handling confrontation within my teammates. Confrontation isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s needed. I’ve definitely grown in that area.”
One teammate James didn’t need to get to know better this offseason is Vescovi. The two seniors are “brothers” according to Vescovi and have been good friends since their freshman year.
Vescovi grew up playing soccer in Uruguay and has made James a soccer fan over the past years. James is searching for a professional team to support in addition to the Lady Vols, adding “it has to be a team that’s winning.”
“Our relationship is second to none off the court,” James added.
After Tennessee didn’t accomplish anything major in James and Vescovi’s first two season, the Vols turned the corner a season ago.
Tennessee’s impressive run following the Kentucky game, culminating in a 14-4 SEC record, left the Vols one game shy of their second regular season SEC Championship under Barnes. The 2021-22 Vols made sure to earn some hardware by claiming its first conference tournament championship since 1979.
However, that championship isn’t the lasting memory for either James or Vescovi entering this season.
“They are hungry for more,” Gainey said. “They are not satisfied with just the SEC championship last year. They want more.”
They don’t have to look far for motivation. Tennessee was playing as well as anyone in the country entering the NCAA Tournament but after rolling Longwood in the first round things went awry.
Tennessee’s pivot to shooting more three-pointers was integral to its success but the Vols went ice cold from deep in the Round of 32 against Michigan, making just two-of-18 triples in a narrow loss.
“We definitely didn’t move on,” James said. “There’s definitely a lot of unfinished business. We haven’t made it out of the first weekend in March, so that’s something that we definitely have to accomplish this year. We want to be the last team standing. We know last season didn’t end the way that we wanted it to, so we have to rewrite the script.”
Making it to the Sweet 16 and the second round of the NCAA Tournament is a benchmark of success for a Tennessee program that’s never made the Final Four.
With five seniors that will play major roles — including Indiana State transfer Tyreke Key — the time is now for Tennessee to make a run in the “Big Dance”.
“It definitely has a little bit of a sense of urgency,” Vescovi said.
“I know that with this being my last year I want to go out on top,” James said. “I’m going to really try and do anything in my power to enable that.”
Outside of the program, there’s plenty of belief that this Tennessee team can achieve big things. The Vols are No. 11 in the preseason AP poll, their highest preseason ranking since Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield’s final season.
Inside the program, there’s even more optimism.
“We’re going to be really good,” James said. “I know that for a fact.”
Tennessee has a great chance to be really good. James and Vescovi’s 4,870 minutes are a major reason why.