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Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi reaches between his legs in pursuit of a loose ball alongside LSU guard Javonte Smart during Saturday's game in Knoxville. / AP photo by Brianna Paciorka

KNOXVILLE — This is all you need to know about the current state of the University of Tennessee men's basketball program:

The Volunteers hit 13 3-pointers Saturday against LSU. Despite this, they lost to the Tigers by 14 points, 78-64.

At home.

Can anyone say "N-I-T, as in National Invitation Tournament"?

"There's nothing we did today that we can't clean up," UT coach Rick Barnes said after his team took its third home loss since Dec. 14. "We feel like in some ways we've had to start over so many different times this year, but I really like these guys."

But can they clean it up in time to keep their fading NCAA tournament hopes alive, especially since the Vols now stand 8-5 overall and 0-1 in Southeastern Conference play after a home league game?

The Big Orange Nation will no doubt point to the latest addition to the UT roster — freshman point guard Santiago Vescovi — as a legitimate reason to believe this latest Vols restart will get them back on track, that they can shake off this latest loss as easily as the football Vols erased that 22-9 deficit against Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.

And Vescovi, who wasn't officially cleared to play by the NCAA until Friday afternoon, did have more than a few magical moments against LSU.

There were the six 3-pointers he hit in nine attempts, pretty much all of them touching nothing but net after leaving his lethal left hand. There were four assists, at least a couple of them spectacular in fashion, such as when he zipped a pass across the lane to forward Yves Pons for a dunk off the left wing.

There are those who somewhat legitimately will compare Vescovi's game to San Antonio Spurs great Manu Ginobili's sublime offensive skills, and within the framework of this very small sample size of 31 minutes and 56 seconds of court time, those comparisons to the Argentine for Uruguay native Vescovi look fairly accurate at this point. Indeed, the form on his shot and his accuracy with both feet on the floor are eerily similar when viewed on this game alone.

Vescovi also committed nine turnovers, didn't look particularly swift on defense and seemed overmatched at times athletically. He even said of this fantastically athletic LSU bunch when compared to the international players he had previously competed against in Mexico and Australia: "They're way more athletic here."

This is not to say every other SEC foe moving forward will equal the Bayou Bengals, who have won 10 straight conference road games under former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Will Wade.

The Tigers have the potential to repeat as regular-season league champs, despite a fair amount of roster turnover from last season's Sweet 16 team. Next Saturday's home game against South Carolina should be more manageable for the Vols, as should future home games against Ole Miss (Jan. 21) and Texas A&M (Jan. 28).

But this is also a league where there's no real bottom feeder except, possibly, A&M. Everybody else entered Saturday at least two games over .500 overall. Everybody else has reason to hope, including the Vols, who did outrebound the deeper, more athletic Tigers 34-33.

Still, on an early afternoon when 13 3s went through the rim — including nine of 13 attempts behind the arc in the opening half — the Vols lost at home by 14, never trailing by fewer than seven in the final 10 minutes or by fewer than 11 in the final 4:09.

"We did a lot of good things today," said freshman wing Josiah-Jordan James, who certainly did a lot right throughout a first half in which scored all 15 of his points and hit three of five 3s. "We've gotten a lot closer. We know each other better off and on the court. We're moving in the right direction."

Perhaps they are. Vescovi certainly should help ease the gigantic loss of injured senior guard Lamonte Turner, at least in the 3-pointer department.

The junior Pons also gets better by the day, as shown by his 18 points (including three 3s), which tied Vescovi for team scoring honors.

But senior Jordan Bowden, of which so much was expected, scored just three points against LSU, which was the fourth time in six games he's totaled seven or fewer. Suddenly, the departures of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone to the NBA no longer look so easy to manage.

As Barnes noted afterward, "We need Jordan Bowden every night."

If LSU is the measuring stick, the Vols need everyone playing near their best every game, and that could still happen. Seventeen league games remain on the schedule prior to the SEC tournament. One conference loss does not a disaster make.

"I still think we've got a chance to be a good basketball team," Barnes said. "But we don't have a lot of room for error."

After Saturday, they have even less.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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