The first time I saw senior point guard Antonio Barton practice with Tennessee's basketball team back in October, he made nearly 20 3-pointers in a row in warm-ups like it was nothing.

Shot after shot, with his feet squared toward the basket and his high-arching follow through, he splashed home one after another on the Pratt Pavilion court.

In the near six months since then, however, that same Barton hasn't been there in a majority of UT's games. He lost his starting job to Darius Thompson on Jan. 25, only to win it back this past week largely due to the freshman's struggles.

After so much hype surrounding Barton entering the season, the player the Vols needed to replace departed starter Trae Golden had been hard to come by during his first and last season on Rocky Top.

Until Saturday.

With the Vols facing Vanderbilt — a team they had already lost to this season — seemingly with a NCAA Tournament bid on the line, Barton was the best player on the floor. He scored 21 points, went 5-of-7 from deep and added a career-high six assists just for good measure as he led the Vols to a 76-38 beat-down.

It has been clear as day all season long where the missing piece in Tennessee's starting rotation lies — at the point.

But when the calendar struck March 1 and it officially became crunch time for Tennessee's postseason chances, it became even clearer just what the Vols have been missing — their X-factor.

"I sat in this same spot, I think (after) the Ole Miss game, and said he was probably our X-factor for the rest of the season," UT forward Jarnell Stokes said Saturday. "When he is playing well it opens up so many things."

Key word: when. Barton has scored four or fewer points in eight SEC games this season and has notched double figures in scoring just twice in the last 13 games, even after Saturday.

It's no secret that confidence looms large in that trend. Barton's minutes have fluctuated as his struggles forced head coach Cuonzo Martin's hand at giving the younger Thompson extra playing time.

That's changing as of late. Barton (28) played twice the minutes of Thompson (12) on Saturday, a game after ​Martin proclaimed the senior would start the rest of the way barring injury.

Considering Barton's experience and what he has proven able to do when the confidence is there, it was a must to make it the Baltimore native's show the rest of the way at the point guard spot.

After saying starting or not "doesn't make any difference" to a horde of reporters following Saturday's game, Barton offered a bit more candidness to the suggestion that being back into the starting lineup changes his mentality.

"It has gone up high," Barton said of his confidence. "I feel more comfortable, knowing that I can be out there and be relaxed and not have to look over my shoulder and worry about other stuff. It allows me to help my team out in a lot of ways."

Confidence is an eerie thing in basketball, especially for shooters who play on a team with the inside presence of Tennessee's. Barton has learned that the hard way.

But as much of a variable as it may be, confidence may end up making or breaking Tennessee's season. A team with the Barton from this past weekend could be quite dangerous come tournament time, but a team with a glaring hole at point will struggle to even win out.

Next time Barton lines up a 3-pointer, he'll just have to close his eyes and pretend he's warming up at Pratt Pavilion. Or playing Vandy at home.

Steven Cook is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached scook21@utk.edu