Freshman J.P. Estrella has averaged 4.7 minutes of action, playing in 21 of  32 games for the sixth-ranked Tennessee. Volunteers. Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics

J.P. Estrella may not play much, but he’s already well known among University of Tennessee men’s basketball fans.

The 6-foot-11 freshman from Scarborough and South Portland High has become a postgame symbol of success. Courtside, sometimes in the locker room, Estrella will look at a camera and use his two large hands to form the shape of a “W.”

As in a Tennessee win. And the Vols, who take a 24-8 record  into March Madness, have been winning plenty. They are ranked sixth in the latest AP poll and are the No. 2 seed in the Midwest region.

“The ‘W’ is something I birthed here in Knoxville,” Estrella said. “The whole ‘W’ thing? They all love the ‘W’ thing.”

Tennessee fans think he could be could be flashing the “W” in the NCAA Tournament, starting Thursday (9:20 p.m. tip) against 15th-seeded St. Peter’s. If he does it six times, that means the Vols will have won their first men’s basketball national championship (the Tennessee women have won eight).

J.P. Estrella flashes a “W” after the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team defeated South Carolina on March 6. His gesture has become a tradition after the team’s victories. Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee has reasons to believe in itself, starting with national Player of the Year candidate Dalton Knecht. Fifth-year senior guards Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James are extensions of veteran coach Rick Barnes on the court. Juniors Jonas Aidoo at power forward and Zakai Zeigler at guard are all-Southeastern Conference defensive team picks. The bench is deep.


“Right now we’re playing our best basketball, and we keep getting better and that’s the perfect time (with) March Madness in the future,” Estrella said last week before the SEC tournament. “We’re just going to show the whole world and shock everybody.”

Estrella is one of four southern Maine players on men’s teams that have advanced to the NCAA Tournament, joining Nick Fiorillo of Scarborough (University of Vermont), Brady Cummins of York (Colgate) and Dom Campbell of Scarborough (Howard).

It is unlikely Estrella will be a major postseason contributor, considering he has averaged 4.7 minutes of action while playing in 21 of Tennessee’s 32 games, scoring 1.5 points and grabbing 0.9 rebounds per game. But he said he’ll be ready to soak up every minute of March Madness with a front-row seat and will be ready when called upon.

“Just thinking about how the season is about to be over and we’re headed to March Madness it’s kind of like mind-boggling,” Estrella said. “I mean I remember sitting down on the couch as a little kid watching all the March Madness games and now that I’m actually here to experience it and get to play in the game, this is literally a dream come true and I’m so blessed to be part of this and just excited about what’s ahead for us.”

In the regular season, J.P. Estrella made 12 of 15 shots and 8 of 12 free throws with 16 rebounds, three blocks, three assists and eight turnovers for Tennessee. Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

While Estrella hasn’t played a lot, he has been called upon in some key moments when Aidoo, a second-team All-SEC selection, or Tobe Awaka needed a rest or were in foul trouble. In the regular season Estrella made 12 of 15 shots and eight of 12 free throws with 16 rebounds, three blocks, three assists and eight turnovers.

Estrella generated headlines in the Tennessee media after a seven-point, nine-minute stint on Jan. 16 against Florida. In the postgame interview, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said of Estrella, “I thought he looked like he truly belonged out there,” and “I’m telling you, the guy can score the basketball.”


Part of the buzz that night came from Estrella trying to dunk on multiple Florida big men, drawing a foul on the play.

“Florida definitely so far has been my best game,” Estrella said. “The dunk? I missed it but it was like two or three people under there. The whole place just lit up. Yeah, I should have made it.”

The Florida game also showed the potential for a 19-year-old player who was a late-bloomer on the national recruiting trail.

J.P. Estrella, center, celebrates with teammates after South Portland High won the Class AA state championship in 2022. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Prior to getting his first NCAA Division I offer from Syracuse the summer before his junior season at South Portland, Estrella was not even the best-known baller in his family. That would have been his mother, Allie (Booth) Estrella, a former Miss Maine Basketball winner who played at Boston College. (As an interesting aside, Allie Estrella’s last college game was a second-round NCAA loss to Tennessee in 1999.)

By the end of his junior season, Estrella had led South Portland to the Class AA state title, was being hotly pursued by several top-caliber Division I programs and had decided to transfer to Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, for his senior season. Estrella committed to Tennessee in September 2022.

Estrella played in only eight of the 14 SEC regular-season games after his Florida splash with a total of four points and a high of five minutes. He was unavailable for three of those games with a leg injury.

Estrella said his role is “to be that piece, whatever they need me to do. Rebound the ball, block shots, get a bucket inside, just doing what my team needs.”

Practicing with the likes of Aidoo and Awaka has been eye-opening and highly instructional, Estrella said.

“I get to battle against those guys every day and that helps me to be consistent so when my moment comes I know I’m ready,” he said. “I just feel I’ve developed at a rapid rate since being here; became a way better player than I ever thought I was going to be, and there’s still a lot more I’ve got to learn and a lot more stuff I have to get better at and that’s just going to come with time.”

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