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Tennessee’s X-Factor(s) heading into the NCAA Tournament

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

Tennessee rolls into the NCAA Tournament this week looking to make something out of what has been an underwhelming season. With John Fulkerson and Yves Pons returning, along with the additions of five-star freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, expectations were high for Rick Barnes this year.

However, it was a bumpy ride through conference play. Tennessee struggled with an offensive identity as Fulkerson sputtered, while Johnson and Springer slowly but surely realized that they had to be the top scoring options on the team.

It’s now March, and this group still isn’t banging on all cylinders, but there are a couple of secondary scoring options on the team that can still make the whole operation go a little smoother — Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey Jr.

Vescovi has been banged up for much of the year, but has been able to play through it. Last week in the SEC Tournament, he looked like the player we were all excited for last season. His legs were back under him, and he was more aggressive with the ball in his hands. Still though, Vescovi adds the most value for the Volunteers as a shooter, and when he’s hot from three, he can take Tennessee to a whole new level.

The second-year point guard is shooting over 37 percent from three-point range this year, and can really bailout an offense that routinely goes through dry spells. The same can be said for Victor Bailey Jr.

Bailey is a volume shooter that runs red hot and ice cold. That has equaled out to total 35 percent shooting from the outside this season, his first in Knoxville. Bailey’s spurts of brilliance have been unpredictable, but when he’s on, Tennessee is much tougher to deal with.

The best example of Bailey’s season came in mid-February, where he scored exactly zero points against LSU and then followed that up with a 29 point performance against South Carolina. Over the season, Bailey averaged 11 points per game.

With Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer now playing less like freshmen, getting a big shooting performance from either Vescovi or Bailey could propel Tennessee past just about anyone in the country. The problem with that plan has been consistency, the same issue that has plagued Tennessee all year.

Especially with John Fulkerson’s status in limbo, Rick Barnes is going to need these two veterans ready to knock down some shots this week in Indianapolis.