INDIANAPOLIS - Two months removed from surgery on his left shoulder, Robert Hubbs III last played in a basketball game for Tennessee in December.
Yet the freshman, a former five-star recruit, has been with the Volunteers every step of the way, and watching his teammates make an NCAA tournament to the Sweet 16 will provide motivation as he gets deeper into his rehabilitation.
"It's been real good," the 6-foot-6 guard said in Tennessee's locker room inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday afternoon after the Vols' shootaround ahead of Friday's night Midwest Region semifinal against Michigan. "It's a great experience. I look forward to getting back here in the near future. Just seeing these guys excel, it's amazing. There's nothing like it.
"It makes me want to get back here a lot. Just the effort I need to put in on my rehabbing and when I get fully healed, just to get back here and think about this all the time, it's amazing."
Hubbs played in the first 12 games of the season and averaged five points in 18 minutes per game. His season-high was a 13-point game against The Citadel in November, but it was clear he wasn't the same player that starred at Dyer County High School in West Tennessee, where he scored 2,464 points and went 118-13 in his career.
A shoulder injury that dated back to his high school career hampered his much-anticipated debut with the Vols, and after aggravating the injury in January, Hubbs, his family and Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin all reached the decision that surgery now was better than playing through it.
"It was real tough," Hubbs said. "It was just something I had to sit down and talk to my parents with and Coach Martin, but I feel like it's the best decision for me.
"I have a bright future ahead, and just not to damage anything major in my shoulder that could affect me later on in my career."
Now 10 weeks removed from his procedure, Hubbs said he started shooting on Tuesday and will resume offensive drills in a couple of weeks. The player said he won't be fully cleared until "late May."
Wearing a large brace on the left shoulder for games and practices, Hubbs, an explosive athlete who can get to the rim and shoot it well from the outside, settled for nearly as many 3-point shots (32) as two-pointers (43) early in the season.
During one preseason practice, Hubbs was hit on the shoulder as he drove into the lane and crumpled to the floor clutching the shoulder in obvious pain.
"It affected me a lot, especially on defense, trying to guard people and shooters going through screens and all that," he said. "I could play through it, but it's better to go ahead and get it fixed now so I don't have to worry about it later.
"I was definitely timid. I knew there was a chance I was going to [hurt it] and my shoulder would start bothering me as soon as I'd drive to the goal. I did have that in the back of my head. Sooner or later I'll be ready and back out there in no time."
Tennessee is losing senior Jordan McRae off this year's team, so Hubbs will be a big part of the equation on the perimeter for next season's team, and if All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes elects to jump into the NBA draft after this season as a junior, Hubbs will be counted on even more to score.
He seemed to be looking forward to his return, though.
"Come November, I'll be back," Hubbs said. "Every game I'm going to be ready next year. I'll guarantee you that."
More coverage from Indianapolis online and in Friday's Times Free Press.