The Vols travel to Georgia and Vanderbilt this week, taking on the Bulldogs (10-5, 0-2) Wednesday at 7 at Stegeman Coliseum and the Commodores (8-7, 0-2) Saturday at Memorial Gymnasium.
Here are three next-day observations from the win:
-Fulkerson observation: Throw away your preconceived notions about Tennessee's 6-foot-9 forward and primary inside presence. John Fulkerson is a better player than most people realize. There's nothing overwhelming about a 15-point, 10-rebound performance when you're the only inside threat and the other interior options — junior Yves Pons and freshman Olivier Nkamhoua — combine for six points on 1-for-9 shooting. But over the final three minutes of Saturday's game, Fulkerson was the best player on the floor, catching a missed Jordan Bowden shot off the rim for a follow-up slam; blocking a shot on the other end after an offensive rebound, then saving the game with a drawn charge with 1.4 seconds to play.
-Freshmen observation: In just three games together, the Tennessee backcourt of freshmen Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi has taken amazing strides, and both had their moments Saturday, combining for 23 points, nine rebounds and three assists against the Gamecocks. James did foul out, and Vescovi continued his turnover struggles (some of which won't be cleaned up until he hits a strength and conditioning program in the offseason), but I felt the positives out-weighed the negatives. But it was a nine-minute stretch in the second half when Rick Barnes went to Drew Pember which played a big role in the game. Pember's line in his 10 minutes of playing time reads just five points and a pair of rebounds, but he made the first of consecutive 3s for the Vols (with James hitting the other) during a 36-second stretch that at the time gave Tennessee some breathing room. This group, with Nkamhoua and Davonte Gaines included, will make their share of physical mistakes. Barnes has been on them about the mental ones, and getting contributions in some fashion from this group night in and night out will be huge in what happens with this team down the stretch.
-Bowden observation: Bowden will be fine. Part of Barnes' recruiting approach early on was to recruit cerebral basketball players, but the problem with that is when things aren't going well, sometimes those players have a tendency to not be able to get out of their own heads. Bowden appears to have some of that going on right now and it's something he'll be able to work himself out of. He's trying to be a basketball player he's never been really asked to be before (more of a creator) and he's going through some of the lows that come with that. It's why the growth of James and Vescovi as lead guards is so vital, because it can take some of the mental pressure off of Tennessee's lone senior and just allow him to be the same sort of player he's been before — a 3-point maker, another ball-handling option and a quality defensive player.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.