Santiago Vescovi’s journey over an eight-month period was nothing short of bizarre.
The Tennessee sophomore guard arrived in Knoxville in late December from NBA Global Academy in Australia and was in Tennessee’s starting lineup about a week later, hitting six 3-pointers in a loss to LSU.
He led the Vols in assists in seven games and in scoring in four games.
When the pandemic hit in March and canceled the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament, he and teammate John Fulkerson drove to South Carolina for a respite.
When Vescovi learned the borders of his country, Uruguay, were about to close, he and Fulkerson made the five-hour drive back to Knoxville so Vescovi could board a flight to Uruguay.
“It was crazy,’’ Vescovi said.
During his return to Uruguay, he said he played pickup games three or four times a week in what he called a safe environment because the country had just 60 cases of COVID.
“It was safer than anywhere else in the world,’’ he said.
Vescovi worked on his fitness with a trainer, lost weight to improve his quickness so he can “guard quicker guards,’’ and improved his shot.
“I feel way better than last semester in terms of shooting,’’ Vescovi said.
Here are excerpts from his zoom media conference on Tuesday:
* When he joined UT and debuted Jan. 4, he said the “speed of the game and athleticism’’ of opponents surprised him. “I am trying to play at a faster pace.’’ He said he has a better understanding of what coach Rick Barnes wants and he is ‘`way more comfortable’’ running the offense.
* Vescovi is high on guard Victor Bailey: “I think Victor is definitely a big surprise. … He will be a big game changer for us.’’ He said freshman wing Keon Johnson is “super athletic’’ and quick, strong and can shoot. He said guard Jaden Stringer is “really talented and athletic’’ and has “really good instincts.’’ He said forward Cory Walker can shoot and crash the boards.
* Vescovi also likes grad transfer E.J. Anosike: “E.J. is a unit. You cannot stop him. If he’s going to the rim, I’d rather move to the side rather than stay in front of him. He’s super strong.’’ If Vescovi did move to the side, what would coach Rick Barnes say? “I was just making a joke,’’ he said. But if Vescovi did get out of the way, Barnes would probably call him “soft,’’ he said.
* Is Vescovi a better shooter or passer? He considers himself a mix who enjoys an assist more than hitting a 3. He said he’s comfortable playing the point or off guard.
* Tennessee has been ranked as high as No. 3 in some preseason polls by the media and is projected as a possible Final Four team. Vescovi said he hasn’t talked to teammates about UT’s high preseason ratings: “I try not to think about it because (it might) put pressure on us that’s not needed,’’ he said.