KNOXVILLE — The last time Rick Barnes turned primary ball-handling duties over to a pair of freshmen, there were some definite highs and lows. Plenty of ebbs and flows.
But if Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi can develop in the same fashion as Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner, then any lows Barnes' Tennessee team might be going through could be short-lived.
The pair and the Volunteers (9-5, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) get their third game together Saturday at 1 at home against South Carolina (8-6, 0-1) in Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols took a similar path in the 2016-17 season, with Bone and Turner, two freshmen, handling the ball primarily. The season ended with a 16-16 record and a loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament, but there were high moments, including a win over Kentucky in Knoxville and a win at Vanderbilt. Tennessee beat four teams that played in the NCAA tournament and a fifth — Georgia Tech — that participated in the National Invitation Tournament. Bone and Turner combined to average over 14 points and five assists per game in the process.
Of course, it wasn't supposed to be that way this season, theoretically speaking. Bone and Turner were supposed to be seniors this season, which would have given James plenty of time to get acclimated to the college game. At the time of the Vols' overtime loss to Purdue in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament in March, James was finishing his senior year of high school and nobody involved with the Tennessee program had even thought about Vescovi.
The Vols were going to have a talented pair of ball-handlers, able to navigate the muddy paths of the SEC while James eased his way in.
But then Bone declared for the NBA draft, being selected 57th overall and ultimately going to the Detroit Pistons organization. Turner started this season as the Vols' point guard but battled thoracic outlet syndrome and finally stepped away from the team after a Dec. 21 win over Jacksonville State.
In the last game before Vescovi officially joined the team, James was the primary point guard. He struggled, missing six of his seven shots and finishing with four points, five assists and three rebounds in a 20-point loss to Wisconsin. But since Vescovi arrived, James appears to have settled in. He has averaged 13 points, six rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 50% from the field and 55% from 3-point range, and he was the best player on the court in the second half of the Vols' Tuesday win at Missouri, when he poured in all 11 of his points.
Vescovi settled in from the moment he arrived on campus, it appears. In two games, he's averaging 15 points per game and has made eight of his 12 3-point tries. His biggest issue is turnovers, averaging seven in the two games as he tries to get acclimated to the college game in real time. But where Vescovi has provided a spark to the team, James has provided an outlet to help take the pressure off Vescovi.
"With us being freshmen, we've got a lot of time ahead of us," James said after last week's loss to LSU, Vescovi's first game. "We see where we have to get better and we see the good things that we've done and where we can get in our areas and our spots, where we can feed off of each other."
The pair has settled into their responsibilities while breathing new life into a season that appeared dead just two weeks ago. Are there losses to come? Sure. Does Barnes now have to take the good with the bad? Of course.
But he's prepared for it.
"I think they've really helped each other," Barnes said Thursday. "It's been fun watching those guys coach each other. After the LSU game, I was in the room with Santi, just he and I watching tape, and Josiah opened the door, came in and sat down. It was really neat to hear Santiago talking to Josiah about what he saw.
"But it was really neat the other night (at Missouri) watching Josiah calm him down and talk to him and say hey, do this. That's been a fun part. And you're talking about two freshmen that really I think have a lot of respect for each other. And I think they do complement each other in the fact that they're both still learning at a pretty rapid rate. What we ask those guys, that (point guard) position, a lot is difficult. But the fact is, they're willing to share that and work our way through it."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.