Photo via Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee basketball is in Italy on a 10-day trip where they’ll play three exhibition games starting Saturday afternoon.
The Vols take on the Lithuanian U21 team at 1 p.m. ET on both Friday and Saturday before facing Italian club Stella Azzurra at 1:30 p.m. ET Monday afternoon.
All three games will be streamed on FloSports, which requires a monthly subscription, but RTI will have you covered with complete coverage of the three games.
Drawing massive conclusions from August exhibitions would be unwise, but it does give us a chance to watch the 2023-24 Vols for the first time and hopefully figure out a few things about them.
Here’s what I’ll be watching for.
More From RTI: Italy Loves Tennessee Big Man Jonas Aidoo
How Does Point Guard Play Differ From End Of Last Season
Point guard Zakai Zeigler won’t see action during the Vols’ three exhibition games as he continues to recover from a torn ACL he suffered late last season.
Zeigler was the only point guard on Tennessee’s roster last season which forced Jahmai Mashack, Santiago Vescovi and even Josiah-Jordan James to play at least some point guard at the end of last season.
The Long Island, New York native is still Tennessee’s only true point guard on the roster. I’m curious to see how similar or different the Vols’ attack the point guard rotation in his absence.
It would be surprising if we didn’t get a steady dose of Santiago Vescovi and particularly Jahmai Mashack at that spot. But what about Freddie Dilione?
Dilione is a combo guard and played point guard in high school. When Tennessee held open practices in preparation for the foreign trip, the 6-foot-5 guard worked extensively at the point guard spot.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Dilione exclusively play point guard, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them rotate constantly with Dilione playing off the ball frequently too. What exactly Dilione’s role looks like will give us a feel for the Vols’ depth at point guard and how important Zeigler’s health will be this season.
First In-Game Look At Freddie Dilione And Dalton Knecht
Excitement around Dilione is about far more than just his ability to play point guard. The North Carolina native is a scorer and that’s something Tennessee needs to lighten the offensive load on Santiago Vescovi’s shoulders.
The highly touted recruit enrolled early in January and redshirted last season meaning the media got to watch him practice a lot on the scout team. He’s a very talented scorer with a bit of an erratic streak. That was fine when he was playing on scout team, but head coach Rick Barnes will demand much more consistency and less wildness.
How does he adapt to that? How does he feel out the game and score if he’s playing point guard? These are both fascinating questions I’ll be following.
Speaking of scoring, Dalton Knecht did it in bunches at Northern Colorado and has looked promising this summer. The 6-foot-7 wing is a high level shooter. That feels definitive, but how complete is his offensive bag?
The questions involving Knecht is how he can score off the dribble against SEC athletes. We won’t get answers to that question in Italy, but it’ll still be entertaining to see how he performs and particularly the creativity Tennessee can have with he and Vescovi on the court together.
Rotations, Rotations, Rotations
How Barnes manages lineups is going to be one of the most fascinating parts about this team. It’s less interesting now that Chris Ledlum is gone and at St. John’s, but Tennessee is still heaving on off guard and wing depth and is slightly thin at point guard and in the front court.
We could see Jahmai Mashack play every position one through four. He gives the Vols an abundance of versatility. We know that Josiah-Jordan James versatility is one of his biggest strengths. How about Dalton Knecht? Is he tough enough and good enough defensively to play the four for extended periods of time?
Tennessee is going to try to figure that out in the exhibition games and it has sizable implications.
The talk of wings playing the four-spot brings up the biggest rotation question of all. How often does Tennessee play two bigs.
Barnes hasn’t been scared to play small the last two years but having two big men on the court has still been more in his comfort range. However, this Tennessee team is built to play small more than any other he’s had in Knoxville.
Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka are the only two returning big men. Freshman JP Estrella has an opportunity to play early but can he prove capable enough for meaningful rotation minutes right away? Another important question Tennessee looks to, at least somewhat, answer in Italy.
Maybe the number one thing I’ll be paying attention to is how often Tobe Awaka and Jonas Aidoo are on the court together. That will tell us a lot about how Tennessee wants to play this season.
Okay maybe the headline should be “sophomore and redshirt freshman leaps?”
Awaka has been the star of Tennessee’s offseason dominating for Team USA U19 in the FIBA World Cup and shining in the practices open to the media. He’s going to have a major role this season and could end up being one of the best players.
In fear of sounding xenophobic, I have a hard time believing Tennessee’s opponents will be able to handle his physicality and tenacity on the glass. Like anything positive from the trip, tempering takeaways will be key. However, Awaka is poised for strong performances and it’ll be entertaining to see him do that with his Tennessee teammates.
How well conditioned Awaka is and how effective he is defensively is two more detailed things I’ll be watching for.
D.J. Jefferson redshirted as a freshman a season ago and still has an uphill battle to earning major minutes this season. However, Tennessee coaches have raved about his hard work and development in the last year. His shooting has taken a major step forward and his elite athleticism makes him a potential star defender.
The exhibition games will be our first chance to watch him in a game. I’m interested to see how he performs.