Conference play is where tournament hopefuls make or break their March dreams. In the SEC in 2022, however, this is much easier said than done. In Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, the SEC is tied with the Big Ten, Big 12, and Big East with seven teams slated to be in the tournament, and Rick Barnes’ Tennessee Volunteers are sitting pretty on the four-seed line and average out in the five range in the overall bracket matrix. Things hadn’t looked so positively for the Vols just a few weeks ago, though.
Coming off their third loss — a beatdown at Kentucky — in their first five games in conference play, it seemed as if Tennessee was regressing to the middle of the pack in a loaded conference. Sitting at 11-5 and just 2-3 in conference play, the Vols were desperate for a spark to turn things around. Enter Santiago Vescovi.
Tennessee wasn’t on the verge of a lost season, but with three ranked losses to begin conference play, two of which by double digits (at LSU and the aforementioned loss to Kentucky), they appeared a clear notch below the conference’s elite. This is where the 6-foot-3 junior from Montevideo, Uruguay, comes in. Vescovi is the Vols’ leading scorer at 14 points per game. Vescovi is known for his in the gym range, and alongside that, his basketball IQ and leadership compliment the Vols’ style of play perfectly.
While Vescovi has taken a clear leap from sophomore to junior year, his ability to turn it up in conference play has stood out the most. Vescovi is averaging 16.5 points per game and a blistering 53.1% clip from beyond the arc during the Vols’ current four game conference winning streak against Vanderbilt, LSU, Florida, and Texas A&M.
Vescovi is a great three-point shooter, ranking seventh in the SEC with a 38.9 three-point percentage this year, but in conference play, that number leaps up to 45.8%, the second best mark in the conference. At 16.0 points per game in conference play, Vescovi ranks seventh in the SEC. Vescovi also ranks top five in conference play in effective field goal percentage (66.8% - 4th), offensive rating among players with at least 20% usage (123.9 - 2nd), and true shooting percentage (68.5% - 3rd).
So much of what Vescovi does revolves around movement away from the ball, finding space, using screens, and shifting with drivers to the basket to free himself either along the wings or in the corner. More often than not, he’ll have two or fewer shots inside the arc for an entire game. His shot fake has been a routine weapon of choice, sending defenders flying, leaving him wide open for a three. Vescovi is also very good at finding ways into the paint and setting up opportunities for cutters or, when the defense collapses, kicking for an open three.
His IQ shines on both ends of the floor for the Vols as Vescovi is a very good off-ball defender. The Vols overall play off their defense and excel at forcing turnovers. They rank eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency and have the ninth most steals in the country. Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler are both elite defenders who each rank within the top 30 in steal percentage in the country, and Vescovi feeds off the chaos their on-ball guards create. Though he himself is not a strong on-ball defender as his athleticism lacks a bit to do so, his hands in the passing lanes and knowledge of where the ball will swing set up consistent opportunities for Tennessee in transition.
It’s been a banner year for Vescovi, and the Vols will need his left hand to stay hot as they enter the final month of the regular season. With matchups at home against Kentucky and Auburn left and both meetings against Arkansas still to be played, the road ahead for the Vols certainly doesn’t get easier, but with an established identity and leaders like Vescovi to feed off of, Tennessee could be a very dangerous team heading into the SEC tournament.