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Three Things: Texas A&M

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

First thing first: sorry for being absent lately — I’ve had a bit of a busy stretch personally. New job, new routine, and I haven’t been as consistent with you guys as I should be. So you have my apologies. Okay, whatever, let’s get to it.

Tennessee bounced back from a bit of a rough stretch (a loss to Alabama and close-scrape against Arkansas) with a convincing 68-54 win over Texas A&M. Here are three things.

Santiago Vescovi Sets a New Career High

Sophomore point guard Santiago Vescovi had one of his best games in his year-ish long career at Tennessee with 23 points on 8-13 shooting with six of his eight makes coming as bombs from 3-point land (six 3s also tied a career high). He also added five rebounds, three assists, two steals and just one turnover. His 4-4 start from long range propelled the Vols to an early double-digit lead that A&M intermittently chipped away at but ultimately never surmounted.

It was a nice bounce-back performance from Vescovi after the Arkansas game during which he netted just four points and missed each of his four attempts from deep. ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes questioned during this game whether or not his presence on the floor was helping or hurting Tennessee since his outside shot wasn’t dropping. It clearly wasn’t the young guard’s best game, and he didn’t really help matters with two turnovers, three fouls and a few lack-luster defensive efforts.

But there was no question about Vescovi’s value against the Aggies. With A&M choosing to double team Fulkerson and Pons anytime the ball entered the post, Santi’s barrage from outside was the gas to Tennessee’s red-hot shooting night.

It also, maybe, reminded folks of his first ever game for the Vols when he dropped six treys and 18 points on the unsuspecting LSU Tigers. Head Coach Rick Barnes touched on that and Vescovi’s performance after the game.

“It was really important,” Barnes said after the game. “It reminded me of his first game here when he walked on the floor with two days practice against LSU. He came out and hit some shots like that. He has struggled a little bit lately. I think some of it is me maybe asking him to do a little bit too much. He knows it. He wants to be good. He was playing with a confidence today and every game. We still have to get his teammates to want to go get the ball some and let him not have to work so hard bringing it down the floor because people are going to do that to wear him down. Santi was terrific.”

Many people, including myself, expected a little bit of a different role for Vescovi this year than that of last season’s. With the two incoming freshmen guards, Victor Bailey’s eligibility and a more seasoned Josiah-Jordan James, one would have thought Santi would perhaps be handling the ball less and playing off-ball more. That hadn’t really happened much yet to date, as none of the other guards have looked comfortable enough initiating the offense with Vescovi off the floor.

However, we’ve slowly seen Victor Bailey grow more comfortable playing the lead guard spot, and against Arkansas we saw (briefly) him playing that role with Vescovi sliding over to the two guard. We also got, for the first time, a real look at Jaden Springer’s playmaking potential.

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Some Spring(er) in his Step

Jaden Springer’s box score doesn’t jump off the screen and grab you — 10 points on 5-6 shooting (0-1 from deep) with one rebound, six assists, six turnovers and two fouls. Good — but maybe not spectacular, right?

Nah. It was delightful watching him work.

His return was a serious boost for the Vols. He played just five minutes against Alabama thanks to a turned ankle, and even though he was back for the next game against Arkansas, I don’t know that he was really back. My Twitter homie Levi mentioned that he might have been physically healed up but mentally still a bit gun-shy.

He played 21 minutes against the Razorbacks, but tossed out his worst shooting effort of the season hitting just two of his seven attempts (28 percent).

A full week removed from the injury, Springer got his first career start against A&M, looked back to form and showed off some of aspects of his game that we’re getting used to seeing on a regular basis.

His strength going to the basket, the ability to finish through contact and his patience in the lane are all far more advanced than a typical freshman and give him an well-seasoned and battle-tested aura.

He just never looks rushed when he attacks, and while that may sound trivial, I assure you it’s a big deal, especially for an 18-year old college freshman. He’s seventh on the team averaging a shade below 19 minutes per contest and has still shown impressive consistency as one of just three Vols averaging at least 10 points each time out.

Tennessee is better when he’s good (duh) — it’s not a coincidence that the Vols lost to Alabama after he hurt his ankle — and his scoring is of significant value to the Tennessee offense. But, against Arkansas we got a glimpse of his playmaking ability that, for the rest of the season, may prove more valuable to the team than his scoring pop.

We’ve come to know Barnes isn’t one to mince words about his players to the media. After Fulkerson’s poor performance against Alabama, Barnes said that his senior center could lose his minutes if he didn’t play better. Nobody is safe and everything is earned.

After the A&M game, despite Springer’s six turnovers, Barnes spoke glowingly about his former five-star’s performance.

Jaden Springer, I thought, played his best game,” Barnes said. “He had some turnovers there at the end that he shouldn’t have, but those are learning experiences...

“Jaden handled himself really well today,” Barnes added later in the press conference. “He is a really gifted player, certainly offensively I think he is deceptive in what he does. He made a great pass. We ran a little set to get he and Fulky down there in a two-man game. He made a great pass to Fulky and Fulky missed a dunk. That is a great pass. That is his talent to see it and make a play.”

I talked earlier about Tennessee’s search for another point guard on the roster, and while Bailey has the experience with going-on three seasons of college basketball to his credit, he’s still most definitely a shooting guard first who can handle the ball and initiate the offense in a pinch. He’s got a scorer’s mentality and mostly lacks the vision of a true point guard.

That’s no sort of indictment of Bailey or his game; good court vision is sort of like an innate sixth sense for basketball players. Allow me to cross-sport metaphor here: If you’re watching football, some quarterbacks can feel the pass rush, right? Peyton Manning could have his eyes down field, watching his receivers, and still step up in the pocket to avoid the pass rush and complete a pass. Sure, he could probably hear the guys coming and see a bit out of his peripheral vision, but knowing that six-foot-five defensive end with 4.5-speed was bearing down and avoiding the pressure is an intuition. Not every quarterback has that capability, and while it’s partly a skill that can be honed, it’s also partially an innate feature that some players just don’t have.

Vision on the hardwood is kind of like that. It draws on a player’s basketball knowledge and allows them to visualize an opportunity, anticipate reactions and capitalize. Watch some clips of the all-time greats — Pete Maravich did it; Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did it; Lebron James still does it.

Now, on paper, Springer’s game against Tennessee Tech looks to be the superior performance: he tallied a career high 21 points by shooting 8-10 from the field (2-3 from 3-point range) with six rebounds, six assists, zero turnovers and zero personal fouls. And while that six-assist-to-no-turnovers contrast sparkles in the box score, his six-assists-to-six-turnovers against A&M still managed to be a treat to observe.

Keep an eye out in the next few days as I’m going to go more in depth on Springer’s frenzy of top-notch decision making and passing proficiency.

Lending a Helping Hand

When Tennessee’s on its game, the offense features a well-balanced attack with seven guys who are legitimate threats to score in double figures. The game against Texas A&M wasn’t Tennessee’s most prolific output of the season, if we’re judging it plainly by the volume of points scored, but it was one of the most efficient offensive efforts of the season.

The Vols tallied a ridiculous 23 assists on 27 total baskets made. That means, according to my hand-held math machine, UT had helpers on 85 percent of its buckets. For reference: that’s the highest assist percentage the Vols have notched since they posted an 89-percent figure against Chattanooga last season.

Now, having seven or eight players with the capability to score doesn’t do the team much good if the players don’t share the basketball. Against A&M, the ball was seemingly in constant motion. The Aggies played tight on the ball, extending their defense north-to-south and east-to-west about as far as they could. The Vols capitalized on that with dribble penetration and consistent kick-outs to either the open guards on the perimeter or the guys crashing baseline.

This formula, and Santi’s assassin-like deep ball, thrust UT to a season-high, 67-percent true-shooting effort, which just plain doesn’t materialize when players are dribbling more than passing and trying to play one-on-one instead of sharing the ball. This was the Vols’ fourth game with 20-plus assists but the only such game that didn’t end up with the good guys scoring at least 80 points (Why, you ask? The Vols posted their lowest pace factor of the year with an around 59 possession in 40 minutes).

Stay tuned — I’m going to breakdown some of the fantastic ball movement against the Aggies when we take more granular look at Springer’s playmaker coming-out party.

Tennessee is now scheduled to play Vanderbilt on Tuesday after a schedule shift due to COVID issues. That game will tip-off at 7 p.m ET time in Nashville, and then the Vols and ‘Dores will play again in Knoxville on Saturday.