Guard play vital in Hogs-Vols rematch

Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi (25) attempts a shot during an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

FAYETTEVILLE — In order to make strides at this point in a season, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says teams, including his, need one thing in particular: Tough, hard-nosed, seasoned guard play.

That is what it comes down to.

“You have to have it,” Barnes, in his 33rd season as a college head coach, said Monday. “You're going to have to have guards that can make some plays. They're going to have to handle the ball correctly, make the right decisions.

“They're going to have to get your team organized.”

Tennessee’s backcourt certainly did that on Feb. 11 in the Volunteers’ 82-61 win over the Razorbacks in Knoxville. Freshman guard Santiago Vescovi, who joined the team to begin SEC play on Jan. 4, finished with career highs in points (20) and assists (8), and Jordan Bowden, the lone healthy senior on Barnes’ roster, added 16 points and six rebounds.

They combined to shoot 50 percent from the floor and 5 of 11 from 3-point range, handing Arkansas its first double-digit loss of the Eric Musselman era. Limiting the duo on Wednesday in the teams’ second meeting (7:30 p.m., SEC Network) is a priority for the Razorbacks as they continue to fight for their NCAA Tournament lives.

“Their point guard really hurt us bad,” said Musselman, who has likened Vescovi’s crafty nature to former San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili. “He did whatever he wanted. He shot 3s, he assisted the ball, he got his teammates great looks. We had no answer whatsoever for Vescovi.

“Somehow we've got to be able to find an answer to try to beat them.”

Vescovi, a native of Uruguay, is a deadly catch-and-shoot threat on the perimeter and arguably the conference’s best shot creator. In SEC-only games, he is shooting 38.3 percent beyond the arc and assisting on a league-high 32.6 percent of Tennessee’s scores when on the floor, per KenPom.

Barnes noted that he doesn’t know where this Tennessee team, 15-12 overall and 7-7 in SEC play, would be without the freshman.

“He is competitive,” Barnes said. “The things he's been able to pick up and the things he's done having to learn things on the fly is like a guy getting called up to the NBA from the G-League and being asked to play against guys who have played with a three-month head start and figure it out. He's done that."

Bowden is the Vols’ top option offensively through 14 SEC games, according to KenPom analytics. He scored a career-high 28 points on 9 of 12 shooting at then-No. 13 Auburn last Saturday to go with six assists.

The senior did a majority of his damage against Arkansas earlier this month inside the arc, knocking down 5 of 9 attempts. Bowden is shooting only 19.7 percent from 3 in SEC play (15 of 76), but 52.2 percent on 2-point attempts.

“He had three curl-bends, I call them, coming off down screens where he caught that thing right in the midrange,” Musselman said of Bowden’s outing Feb. 11. “He can make midrange shots, he can attack the rim because of his length and his physicality for his position.

“He annihilated us, too. I mean, we had no one to guard him either. … He takes a fair share of 3s, so that becomes, at least the threat of taking them, a concern as well.”

What is concerning to Barnes at the moment is turnovers. Tennessee committed 24 on Saturday at Auburn in its 73-66 loss and now holds the SEC’s highest turnover rate in conference games (21.4), per KenPom.

The Vols’ 36.1 percent turnover rate against the Tigers is the highest mark by a Barnes-coached team since at least 2002.

“There's a lot of things that can go into it, but it goes back to decisions,” he said. “Whether it's players’ decisions or referees’ decisions, there's a lot of things that go into turnovers. I don't think referees are the reason you turn the ball over 25 times, but some of their decisions can lead to guys having to go in the game when you wish other guys were in there, and some of those turnovers occur.

“Ours are occurring with guys that are playing a lot of minutes.”

Arkansas’ loss at Tennessee was its third in a row in the absence of Isaiah Joe, who was sidelined for two and a half weeks following knee surgery. His return to the lineup changes the complexion of Wednesday’s rematch as well as the Razorbacks’ substitution patterns, Musselman said.

Joe poured in a game-high 21 points and hit five 3s Saturday against Missouri in his first action since Feb. 1 at Alabama. Arkansas made five 3s as a team at Tennessee, two by forward Adrio Bailey.

“He is going to shoot it deep,” Barnes said of Joe. “He's got great range and they have given him the ultimate green light to get shots, and they work to get him shots. They will be a different team there than when they were here.

“We know they're going to shoot a lot of 3s. We expect it and we've got to be ready to defend the 3-point line."