KNOXVILLE — Tuesday night, the Tennessee men's basketball team won 82-61 over Arkansas to pick up a much-needed Quadrant 2 victory in the NCAA NET rankings, the newest measurement of helping select teams for the NCAA tournament.
Technically, the Volunteers got two Quadrant 2 wins — and the possibility of another right away.
The Vols are 14-10 overall and 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference heading into Saturday's game at South Carolina (14-9, 6-4). The Gamecocks moved up to 75 in the NET rankings on Wednesday, meaning the Vols' 56-55 win on Jan. 11 now qualifies as a Quad 2 victory.
Tennessee sits at 62.
The goal now? To keep winning, with each game coming up down the stretch (except for a home game against Vanderbilt next Tuesday) against at least a Quadrant 2 opponent. The Vols finish with visits to Auburn and Arkansas, a home game against Florida, a trip to Kentucky and the regular-season finale against Auburn.
"I think every game moving forward is important for us. (We need) to get wins to finish out the season. We have seven left and we just need to keep winning," freshman guard Davonte Gaines said Tuesday night. "Desperation is one of the factors that plays a role. You have to go into each game desperate and desperate for a win. I think it helps you realize that each game is important."
Here are three observations from the rout of the Razorbacks:
1. Vescovi impact: Simply put, it's hard to quantify just how good freshman point guard Santiago Vescovi has been. Dropped into the starting lineup from the midseason moment he arrived on campus, Vescovi has handled the expectations about as well as could be expected. His defense is still a work in progress — he's the team's worst on-ball defender, which could be attributed some to just not being in college shape yet — but offensively if he continues to have games such as the one he had Tuesday (20 points, eight assists), the Vols will have a chance as he's had to morph into the team's primary ball-handler with Josiah-Jordan James still recovering from a lower-body injury.
2. Olivier, Gaines impacts: Gaines and Olivier Nkamhoua have had their fair share of struggles this season. Coach Rick Barnes has had a short leash in terms of the amount of playing time the two freshmen have received. But as the two have started to figure out what's wanted from them, their playing time has increased, and Tuesday both players were huge for the Vols. Gaines was a terror all over the court, diving for loose balls, beating Arkansas players to 50-50 balls and being a pest to Mason Jones, the SEC's leading scorer going into the game. Jones finished with nine points and was only 1-for-10 on field-goal tries. Nkamhoua, meanwhile, solidified his reputation as the team's best offensive and overall rebounder, grabbing six in just 19 minutes of game action. The 10 points were just a plus for the 6-foot-8 freshman.
3. Bowden effect: Look, I know everyone expected senior Jordan Bowden to have some ridiculous breakout season and average some crazy amount of points while maintaining the same level of efficiency as years past. That hasn't been — nor was it ever really a sensible thought — but aside from his shooting from long range, Bowden has had a respectable season, considering he's always been more of a complementary piece. Bowden has become a better defender this season (95.0 defensive rating this season, 101.5 last). He's averaging a career high in assists, and he's doing so having drawn an opponent's primary defender more often than not. He's even become a better finisher at the rim in recent games, realizing his long-range shot hasn't been falling. It's not the ideal ending you'd want from your lone healthy senior, but bad? No.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.