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Santiago Vescovi was thrown into the fire — and he’s already better for it

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Vescovi has kept this team afloat. He’ll have a chance to do a lot more next season.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time when people made the argument that Rick Barnes shouldn’t waste a season of eligibility for incoming point guard Santiago Vescovi. After all, Vescovi was arriving midseason and Tennessee’s postseason hopes were seemingly circling the drain. Considering what the Vols have coming in next year, the thought process made sense.

But could you imagine where this team would be without him today? Rick Barnes opted to play him, even starting him after just a week of practice against LSU. He was instant offense for the Volunteers, badly needed after Lamonte Turner was shut down.

After a bit of an understandable lull, things seem to be slowing down for the young Uruguayan point guard. He notched a career-high 20 points against Arkansas on Tuesday night — his fourth game in his last five registering double-digit points. More importantly, his turnover numbers are coming down.

Since January 21st, Vescovi hasn’t totalled more than three turnovers in a game. That’s a big deal for a point guard handling starter minutes.

“For a freshman, I keep telling everybody, what they guy has done and the way he has gone about it is really remarkable,” Barnes said. “He learns. He is a fast learner. He was tired tonight. When they started doubling in the back court tonight, he got sloppy and he knows it. He will learn from it. He learns from his mistakes about as well as anybody we have coached.”

After Turner was shut down, Tennessee didn’t have an aggressor. Jordan Bowden was kind of forced into that role, but that’s not who he is. Vescovi has become that guy for Tennessee, getting into the paint and either getting a shot up or finding someone else. The offense looks drastically different than it did in late December.

While the win column isn’t exactly showing that progress, his development is clear. On Tuesday though, Tennessee cruised to a 21 point win over Arkansas. Vescovi’s effort was recognized by Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman after the game.

“I thought he was phenomenal,” Musselman said of Vescovi. “He’s a very entertaining player to watch on tape. It’s a great find for their coaching staff, to be able to find a point guard who comes in and plays with great intelligence, a guy that can knock down the three, make his foul shots. His composure, for a freshman — phenomenal.”

Kansas head coach Bill Self had some similar comments about Vescovi last month.

As we’ve seen in Barnes’ system, players really blossom over time if they put in the work and buy in. It’s super early for Vescovi, but it’s tough to imagine this kid not growing into something special down the road.

We may be looking back on this stretch of games next year as vital development time for Vescovi. Tennessee is going to be ridiculously talented in 2020-21, and Vescovi is going to be a huge part of that equation.

Next year, Barnes gets to put two five-star guards (Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer) and a four-star wing (Corey Walker Jr.) out there with him, along with John Fulkerson, Yves Pons and Josiah James.

With the light already starting to come on for Vescovi, his potential in this program is off the charts.