When Tennessee reeled off a 6-0 start to its basketball season before Southeastern Conference play began, Victor Bailey Jr. was arguably the star of the show.
The Volunteers had a well-balanced scoring attack, but the 6-foot-4, 179-pound redshirt junior guard who transferred from Oregon was leading the way and was constantly in the starting lineup. Not long after SEC games started, however, Bailey disappeared from the first five largely due to defensive deficiencies, and his playing time slowly dwindled.
Then came last Saturday's 78-65 loss at LSU, when Bailey was scoreless in just 11 minutes.
"I've honestly never really thought he was struggling until the LSU game," Tennessee assistant coach Kim English said Thursday on a Zoom call. "I think VJ is such a confident player, because he's up there as one of the hardest workers I've ever been around. I never really thought he was struggling until the 0-for-3 LSU game when he shot an airball. I sat next to him on the flight briefly and called him when we landed in Knoxville when I was on my way home, and he was going to shoot.
"The next day we had film, and afterward he's in there shooting again. Coach (Rick) Barnes went out while he was shooting and gave him some light words of encouragement, but nothing out of this world."
Out of this world is an accurate description for Bailey's performance Wednesday night against South Carolina, when he bounced back by pouring in a career-high 29 points as the No. 19 Vols rolled to a 93-73 victory. Bailey's big evening was highlighted by a 7-of-10 showing from 3-point range.
The 29 points topped what Bailey had compiled in this month's first four games combined.
"I've just tried to stay resilient and stay focused on my work, and my teammates have had my back through the whole thing," Bailey said Wednesday night. "It's tough when you're trying to put the work in and you don't see the results, but you've got to keep pushing and you've got to keep fighting. When you've got a group of guys like I do, it makes that a lot easier."
Bailey returned to the starting lineup Wednesday for the Vols, who played without sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James. Whether Bailey, whose 10.6 points per game ranks second on the team, remains a starter Saturday afternoon against visiting Kentucky is unknown, but what does appear evident is that he has benefited from being a backup.
In recent practices, Bailey has played the role of second-string point guard.
"I thought that probably helped VJ as much as anything as far as understanding what we want to do," Barnes said, "and I thought he did a really good job with it. Sometimes when a player stops thinking about making shots and just plays — getting involved and letting it spin around and getting the offense going and trying not to get lost defensively — it happens for you."
Said Bailey: "Coach Barnes is a mastermind who knows what he's doing, and I've been trying to figure out what he wants and execute some of the things that he's telling us to do. When you do that, good things happen."
Good things have mostly been happening for Tennessee lately, as the Vols have scored 82 points at Kentucky, 89 against Georgia and 93 against South Carolina in three of their past four games. Keon Johnson scored 27 at Rupp Arena and Jaden Springer 30 against the Bulldogs, so Bailey's 29 Wednesday offered further proof that anybody can go off on a given night.
"I think our best is yet to come and that we haven't put a full game together yet," Bailey said. "Once we do that, I think we're going to be tough to beat."