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Three Things: Florida — The Santhreeago Vescovi Edition

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This edition of Three Things is really about One Thing, Tennessee’s best player, Santiago Vescovi

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee survived 11 first-half turnovers and some early, spicy Gators’ shooting to snag the 78-71 dub. Today’s Three Things is sorta just one thing. But it’s also lots of things. It’s

Santhreeago Vescovi

When Santiago Vescovi blew up for six 3s in his first game here, against LSU, I’d say most folks knew he had a promising career in front of him. But three seasons in, how many expected him to be Tennessee’s best player, while rostered with three 5-star recruits and super-senior John Fulkerson?

Vescovi popped off for 23 points against Florida Wednesday evening, which led all scorers and tied his season-high total previously set in the Villanova game three-ish months ago. He hit his first three forty seconds into the game and bombed his way to 11 more points in the first half. The following play probably looks familiar.

The ball fake into a side-step, pull-up 3 has become Vescovi’s go-to counter for hard close outs — it’s his left jab to an opponent’s incoming right cross. Defenders know he’s a knock-down shooter, so they sprint out to contest the shot. Unfortunately for the defense, this actually plays to Santi’s strengths.

Per Synergy, Vescovi’s hitting 40.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot chances when he’s guarded but just 37.3 percent of looks when he’s unguarded. I double-and-triple checked, and no, I didn’t write that out wrong. He’s actually shooting the ball better when he’s got a hand in his face.

But then on the occasions he’s not feeling the contested look, like above, he puts it on the deck and becomes Tennessee’s most lethal scorer. Vescovi’s shooting 42 percent on shots off the dribble and ranks in the NCAA’s 96th percentile with a 1.2 points-per-possession figure in those instances.

He’s essentially got defenses in a counterintuitive vice-grip of no-win scenarios: If defenses want to try and chase him off the 3-point line, they’re unintentionally forcing him, somehow, into a better shot. Or his ball fakes turns close outs into errant block attempts on phantom shots and the defense gets an elite scorer off-the-bounce surveying the floor who’s playing 5-on-4 as its prize.

Okay, okay. Moving on. What’s even more wild about Vescovi’s first half: he did a normal game’s worth of damage — he’s averaging 14 points per-game this year — in just 10 minutes. Though Santi’s second half was more of a simmer after his boiling first half, with nine points, 2-5 from the field with one 3 and 4-4 from the FT line, his impact was perhaps substantial. He just flipped the switch from quantity to quality.

Tennessee was down by as many as 13 points in the first half and entered the break down eight. Two buckets from Olivier Nkamhoua, a deuce from Josiah-Jordan James and a 3 from Zakai Zeigler left UT down four, and then this Vescovi triple made it a one-point game.

There’s a lot about basketball that’s brash, rigid and well-defined: players run fast, they jump high and they dunk hard, right? But there’s often a whole other game being played in the creases and around the edges of those edifices. It’s nuanced, delicate and even, at times, a bit abstract. And it’s in this subset where Vescovi thrives.

If you keep your eyes on Vescovi, his body language after passing to Fulky indicates what we’re seeing on the screen was sorta impromptu. He’s waving at Kennedy to Josiah to come his way. But neither of them do it — Chandler looks like he’s maybe about to cut to the hoop, while Josiah is, uhhh, just kinda standing there.

But then once Powell has the ball, Santi’s reading his man and Powell simultaneously. His defender never even glances back Vescovi’s way.

This spot in the sequence is really the key to the whole play, though. Florida’s defense is all outta whack, and Santi’s starting to edge over to the corner and all that free space as Powell’s driving to the hoop.

This ends up as a kinda incidental flare screen. Fulkerson’s basically got Vescovi’s man bodied up, and Vescovi drifts into the corner to wait for Powell’s pass. Since this wasn’t an actual, set play, and Fulkerson wasn’t really “setting,” the screen, Vescovi’s man gets out in time for a contest but it’s too late.

A few possessions later, still a one-point game, and Tennessee’s on the fast break after a turnover.

Santi’s typically not the most traditionally athletic guy on the court, but according to Barnes, Vescovi worked hard in the offseason to change his eating habits and improve his speed, quickness and endurance. When Powell’s pass is on the way, Vescovi’s primary defender is out there in a bad way. His back’s to Santi and his feet are tangled.

Vescovi knows that even when the UF defender recovers, he’s still gonna have the advantage. He uses that improved quickness to get and keep the primary defender on his back hip.

At this point, the only defender Vescovi really needs to be concerned with is he UF player circled in green.

And if he’d gone up for a normal layup, this woulda been sent back into the Tennessee. But Santi goes reverse and gives Tennessee its first lead since the 17:10 mark of the first half. The Vols didn’t give it back.

Prior to the season, this looked like a perimeter-oriented team. And while the Vols lean heavily on their backcourt, the puzzle pieces still don’t seem flush, evidenced by the multi-minute scoring droughts that are still happening nearly every game. Chandler hasn’t been the offense’s senzu bean like expected, things haven’t clicked for Justin Powell, and Victor Bailey has just flat disappeared. Santi’s the lone Vol playing above expectations. In my preseason Vescovi piece, I noted that Santi’s shooting and his “hooper’s guile,” were two, main reasons he was still going to be an offensive catalyst for the Vols, even though he was coming off a relatively poor statistical season. Against Florida, we got a peek at both qualities.

During Vescovi’s first two seasons at Tennessee, he played a lot of, sorta, de facto point guard because during his freshman year the Vols lacked a true point guard and needed Vescovi’s pop from deep on the floor and because during his sophomore year, well, the Vols lacked a true point guard and needed Vescovi’s pop from deep on the floor.

That’s not to say he can’t play the one, cuz he can, but it’s just not always the optimal way to accentuate the goods and he’s not fast or athletic enough to break down a defense regularly with his first step. Though since Kennedy Chandler’s arrived, it’s let Barnes play Santi off the ball more and wile about in the offense’s gray areas, which has been key to unlocking Vescovi’s potential.

The Uruguayan’s 23-point outburst lifted his season average to 14.6, which is a nearly six-point bump from last year. His overall FG percentage is up five points, his 3-point percentage is up 2.5 points and his 2-point percentage is up 12 points, all per Sports Reference. His improved 2-point shooting is largely thanks to his 63-percent proficiency on close 2s. That’s a higher percentage than anybody else on the team except for Uros Plavsic and Josiah-Jordan James. He’s the team’s leading scorer, second-leading assist man, and he’s second in steals and the team’s fourth-best rebounder.

He’s second in the SEC in made 3s, eighth in accuracy and he’s cut his turnovers down from 3.5 per-game his freshman season to 1.7 this year, despite posting the team’s second-highest usage rating.

The driving force behind all of that? Santi’s the pillar of consistency. But it’s a pillar that’s reinforced with Adamantium. He’s scored in double figures in 16 of Tennessee’s 19 games and nailed more than one 3-pointer in 13-straight games, dating back to the Presbyterian game on November 30th. Even though he’s gotten into some early-game foul trouble a few times this year, like he did against UF, it’s not really hampering his minutes. He’s tallied at least 25 minutes in nine consecutive games and in 15 of the Vols’ 19 games.

This season hasn’t gone quite as expected, though things aren’t nearly as bad as they seemed when the dust settled in the Vols’ thrashing against LSU in Bator Rouge. If Vescovi can get some help, maybe Tennessee can get back to the Sweet 16.