After defeating Stella Azzurra, an Italian club team, in Rome on Monday afternoon, Tennessee basketball wrapped off its three August friendlies.
Three exhibition games that the Vols won all by themselves. Tennessee defeated Stella Azzurra 97-51 and the Lithuanian U21 national team twice, 97-57 and 116-90.
Despite injuries, Tennessee's ten scholarship players all saw a lot of action. It would be foolish to draw broad conclusions from three exhibition games against opponents who are significantly outmatched, but there were some valuable lessons learned as per our NBA Expert Picks from the three games.
Four lessons can be learned from the Vols' journey to Italy.
No. #1. Not Much Jonas Aidoo And Tobe Awaka Together
Prior to the trip, a major concern was how much Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka would play together on the floor. Chris Ledlum's entry through the transfer portal made Aidoo and Awaka the only big guys from Tennessee to have participated in collegiate basketball at any level.
Although J.P. Estrella is a fascinating rookie who may play a limited part this season, it is difficult to envision him logging more than 15 minutes per game.
Tennessee will therefore need to use a lot of four-guard lineups or play a lot of Awaka and Aidoo together. Although Rick Barnes isn't averse to playing four-guard, three-guard, and two-big lines he has proven to be more effective defensively, and he frequently resorts to that cozy safety net.
Although Awaka and Aidoo did occasionally perform together, it wasn't very common. Since Tennessee used a lot of platoon substitutions and all three games ended in blowouts, I don't want to overthink it.
Barnes seems at ease in a variety of four-guard lineup configurations. That could lead to a slight defensive setback for the Vols, but also creates a wealth of exciting opportunities for Tennessee's offense, especially for its athletic guards with a downhill driving ability (Zakai Zeigler, Freddie Dilione, and Jahmai Mashack).
No. #2. Shooters Shoot
In an attempt to strengthen its outside shooting, Tennessee signed Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey this offseason through the transfer portal. In theory, the combination of the two and Santiago Vescovi provide the Vols with spacing that will help their athletic guards continue to decline (as previously noted).
Throughout the three-game tour, all three shot incredibly well. Knecht scored twelve triples, Gainey nine, and Vescovi ten. Together, the three made 31 of 66 (47%) of their shots from beyond the arc, shooting 39% from three points or better.
That is an incredibly outstanding clip, and while it won't hold up against better opponents over the course of a complete college season, it does demonstrate how Knecht and Gainey would ideally strengthen the Vols' squad and significantly improve their attack.
The confidence with which Gainey and Knecht's shot was especially promising. Although they both had slumps (Gainey had a bad shooting in the first half of the first exhibition game), none of them lost faith in themselves.
For the past two years, it has been a problem for Tennessee transfer shooters Tyreke Key and Justin Powell. To be fair, in a game with FIBA regulations and more possessions than a college game, it is simple to stay confident and keep shooting when you are ahead by more than 20 points against a team that is far inferior.
No. #3. Jordan Gainey And Guard Depth
We discussed Gainey's impressive shooting above, but throughout the trip, I was more pleasantly surprised by Gainey than by anyone else. I didn't think he would play a significant role this season going into the trip since I thought his senior year (2024–25) would be the right moment for him to take on a larger role.
I haven't ruled out the chance that he will gain a significant role this season after watching him for three games. Although his impressive shooting stats were encouraging, I wasn't overly surprised by them.
I had no idea how much better Gainey would be at creating offense and playing point guard. Perhaps it was only the competitiveness that made that happen. I was shocked by that, but time will tell.
The most encouraging aspect of Gainey's performance, though, may have been his defensive play. Throughout all three games, he remained competitive, but against Stella Azzurra, he excelled. Arguably the finest player on the court in that game, Gainey was a complete threat on defense.
To improve Tennessee's offense and get on the court, a guard who plays strong defense and makes good outside shots is a fantastic combo.
However, I'm not sure how Tennessee will have enough minutes for every player in its backcourt if Gainey takes off this season. There are a lot of mouths to feed with Zeigler, Vescovi, Dilione, Jahmai Mashack, and Gainey.
Rotations have primarily been discussed in relation to the wings and frontcourt. The backcourt rotation on Tennessee's roster intrigues me more than any other position as the team prepares to return to Knoxville.
No. #4. Santiago Vescovi’s Return Is Hard To Quantify
Although it is widely known that Santiago Vescovi's return to Tennessee for his outstanding senior season was a huge victory for Rick Barnes and his team, his significance was evident in all three games in a subtle way.
Vescovi didn't do anything to pursue his own shot for the majority of the three games. He played excellent defensively and motivated his teammates, dishing out a total of 15 assists across three games. It takes a lot of work for opponents to stop Vescovi, which opens up a lot of scoring possibilities for his teammates.
Additionally, the Uruguayan's skilful shooter relieves a lot of his teammates' scoring responsibility. That is an excellent safety net because his teammates, who are mostly expected to score at a high rate, are rookies (including Freddie Dilione, who enrolled early in January).
Vescovi is one of the most underappreciated Vol basketball players of the twenty-first century, in my opinion, and he excels at all the little things.