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Tennessee forward Uros Plavsic blocks a shot by Georgia's Anthony Edwards during the first half Wednesday night in Athens, Ga. / AP photo by Joshua L. Jones

KNOXVILLE — Uros Plavsic certainly hopes and expects to have better performances than he did Wednesday night in Tennessee's 17-point loss at Georgia.

In early November, though, the 7-foot-1, 240-pound center from Serbia who spent one high school basketball season at Hamilton Heights didn't think he would play at all this season.

In that context, five points and three rebounds in 17 minutes on the court doesn't sound all that bad — because he spent his first 15 games as a Volunteer on the sideline.

His next chance to help the Vols (10-6, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) is at 6 p.m. EST Saturday at Vanderbilt (8-8, 0-3), which has lost 23 straight conference games. SEC Network will televise the matchup.

Tennessee's collaborative effort to have the NCAA grant eligibility this season to Plavsic, who transferred from Arizona State after redshirting as a freshman last season, came to a satisfactory conclusion for the Vols earlier this week — but only after months of work.

In most cases, a basketball player who transfers from one Division I program to another must sit out his first season with the new team. It's not uncommon for the NCAA to grant a waiver of that rule, however, and Tennessee always believed Plavsic had a good case. So when the first appeal was denied on Nov. 2, the Vols were frustrated and surprised.

"We are extremely disappointed — quite frankly, stunned — in this outcome, and feel strongly that very compelling facts support clearance for immediate eligibility," Tennessee athletic Phillip Fulmer said in a statement released that day. "We are at a loss as to how this decision aligns with a mission of prioritizing the well-being of student-athletes, and we are struggling to provide an explanation to a deserving young man who stands to lose a year of eligibility. We will stand by Uros and support him in every way possible as we exhaust all options in advocating for his competitive opportunity."

Although Fulmer made it clear the Vols weren't giving up, Plavsic has admitted he was rattled by the NCAA's decision and said it took him a couple of weeks to get over the feeling. His teammates tried to encourage him with their words, though, and they even showed public support by starting a Twitter hashtag that caught on: FreeUros.

"We were just telling him that everything happens for a reason," freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James said Wednesday night. "There's always a bigger picture. We knew he was down after that, and we tried to keep him in good spirits and tell him everything is going to be fine.

"It was God's plan, and it worked out in the end."

Meanwhile, Tennessee's compliance department was working tirelessly to get him cleared. A second appeal was denied, but while at practice Tuesday afternoon, he received word he had been cleared. The next night, he made his first appearance in a regular-season college basketball game.

Plavsic admitted his defense wasn't great against the Bulldogs, but like most of his teammates on a youthful and inexperienced roster, the expectation all along was that improvement would come with more minutes on the court.

"He knows what we're doing," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Friday. "It's a matter of him now, when the lights come on and the emotion of the game is going on, that he can concentrate and think about (things). The other night he had some blown assignments on our ball-screen defense, and he had a chance to block some shots that he didn't. From a scheme point of view, he should know what we're going because he has been with us from day one (of preseason practice)."

So yeah, there were some nerves on the court for Plavsic — but being there was far more important.

"It means a lot," Plavsic said. "When you get to a new school and a new program, you want to leave the best impression. I was just being myself, and I'm thankful for the fans' support. Our compliance people did a great job, and I can't thank them enough for what they've done for me through this whole process.

"It took longer than it was supposed to, but here I am now ready to help the team win some games."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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