Photo By Ian Cox/ Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee basketball completed its three August exhibition games Monday afternoon by knocking off Italian club team Stella Azzurra in Rome.
The Vols won all three exhibition games handedly. Tennessee knocked off the Lithuanian U21 national team twice — 97-57, 116-90 — and Stella Azzurra 97-51.
Tennessee had 10 scholarship players healthy and all played extensive minutes. Drawing massive conclusions from three exhibition games against overmatched opponents is unwise but there were things to takeaway from the three exhibition games.
Here’s four takeaways from the Vols’ trip to Italy.
More From RTI: Complete Stats From Tennessee’s Three Exhibition Wins
Not Much Jonas Aidoo And Tobe Awaka Together
One of the biggest questions entering the trip is how much Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka would play on the court together. After Chris Ledlum entered the transfer portal, Aidoo and Awaka became Tennessee’s only big men who have played any level of college basketball.
J.P. Estrella is an intriguing freshman and he could carve out a small role this season but it’s hard to see him playing 15-plus minutes a game.
With that, Tennessee either has to play Awaka and Aidoo together extensively or play an abundance of four-guard lineups. Rick Barnes isn’t opposed to playing four guard but three-guard, two-bigs lineups have been better defensively and he often falls back on that comfortable security blanket.
But while Awaka and Aidoo played together some, it was somewhat rare. I don’t want to read too much into it because Tennessee did plenty of platoon substituting and all three games were blowouts.
Barnes appears comfortable playing an abundance of four-guard lineups. That might cause the Vols to take a small step back defensively but it opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities for Tennessee’s offense and particularly its athletic guards that can drive downhill (Zakai Zeigler, Freddie Dilione, Jahmai Mashack).
Tennessee added Jordan Gainey and Dalton Knecht in the transfer portal this offseason to improve its perimeter shooting. The duo combined with Santiago Vescovi ideally gives the Vols spacing that will further assists their athletic guards getting downhill (as previously discussed).
All three shot extremely well in the three game trip. Vescovi hit 10 triples, Knecht hit 12 and Gainey hit nine. All three shot 39% from three-point range or better, combining to shoot 31-of-66 (47%) from behind the arc.
That is an insanely impressive clip and while it’s not sustainable over the course of a full college season against improved competition it does show how Gainey and Knecht ideally improve the Vols’ roster and give their offense a real boost.
What I found particularly encouraging was the way Gainey and Knecht shot with confidence. Both went through cold stretches (Gainey shot poorly in the first half of the first exhibition game) but neither lost their confidence.
That’s been an issue for Tennessee transfer shooters each of the last two years (Justin Powell and Tyreke Key). In fairness, it is easy to maintain confidence and keep shooting when you’re up by 20-plus points against an outmatched team in a game with FIBA rules and more possessions than the college game.
Jordan Gainey And Guard Depth
We touched on Gainey’s strong shooting above but I found myself more pleasantly surprised with Gainey than anyone else during the trip. Entering the trip I had a hard time seeing him earning a real role this season with his senior season (2024-25) being the time for him to step up into a bigger role.
After watching him over three games I’m not ruling out the possibility that he earns a sizable role this season. His strong shooting numbers were a good sign but they didn’t really surprise me.
Gainey’s ability to play point guard and create offense was far better than I expected. Maybe that was solely because of the competition. Time will tell but it surprised me.
But perhaps the most encouraging thing about Gainey’s performance was how he performed defensively. He held his own over the course of all three games but was particularly impressive against Stella Azzurra. Gainey was an absolute menace on the defensive end in that game and was arguably the best player on the court.
A guard playing stout defense and shooting the ball well from the perimeter is a great combination to boost Tennessee’s offense and get on the court.
Still, if Gainey becomes a real contributor this season I’m not sure how Tennessee is going to have enough minutes for everyone in its backcourt. Zeigler, Vescovi, Dilione, Jahmai Mashack and Gainey are a lot of mouths to feed.
Most talk about rotations has involved the wings and front court. As Tennessee returns to Knoxville I find myself as intrigued by the backcourt rotation as any other spot on the roster.
Santiago Vescovi’s Return Is Hard To Quantify
Everyone knows Santiago Vescovi returning to Tennessee for his super senior season was a massive win for Rick Barnes and his staff, but his importance was quietly on display all three games.
For much of the three games, Vescovi did little to hunt his own shot. He got his teammates involved totaling 15 assists over three games and was fantastic defensively. The effort opponents have to expend defending Vescovi is extensive and that creates all sorts of scoring opportunities for his teammates.
The Uruguayan sharp shooter also takes so much scoring burden off his teammates. Given his teammates most expected to score at a high clip are newcomers (and Freddie Dilione who early enrolled in January) that is a phenomenal security blanket.
Vescovi does all the little things well and, in my estimation, is one of the most underrated Vol basketball players of the 21st century.