Notes from the Summitt: Vols Preparing for Bout with Kentucky

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    (Photo via Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

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    “Notes from the Summitt” will be a weekly notebook and mailbag piece designed to cover all the major topics surrounding Tennessee’s men’s basketball team and the Lady Vols basketball program. Staff writer Ben McKee will give updates in a notebook format and will also answer questions from fans on a weekly basis about both the men’s and women’s teams.

    This week, the notebook focuses exclusively on the men’s basketball team since the Lady Vols finished up the regular season on Sunday and won’t be playing in the SEC Tournament until later in the week.

    Take a look at our latest edition of “Notes from the Summitt” right now!

    Good weekend

    Tennessee surprised many with a 63-58 win over arch-rival Florida inside of Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon. The Vols were coming off an embarrassing performance in Arkansas on Wednesday, but they were able to knock off a Florida team that had won six of their last eight games before Saturday.

    John Fulkerson led the way as he continues to make his case to be an All-SEC First Team member. The Incredible Fulk poured in a game-high 22 points on 10-for-15 shooting. Fulkerson also had two rebounds and an assist.

    But most importantly, he made his first-ever three-pointer.

    “We’ve been waiting all year for that 3-point shot,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes joked following the game. “It was a special play we had in, and it just happened to work. It hasn’t always worked.”

    Fulkerson’s first collegiate three came when the Vols desperately needed a basket. Florida, after trailing by as many as 19, had cut the lead to one with 2:55 remaining. The Vols were in the midst of another poor possession with the Gators on the brink of turning them over. With two seconds left on the shot clock, Fulkerson jacked up a three and hit nothing but the bottom of the net. The momentum from the shot carried Tennessee to a win.

    “It felt really good coming off my hands,” Fulkerson said. “We ran our play and didn’t get open, so I just had to kind of cut and get the ball. It was God.”

    Barnes had just called a timeout prior to the three. The message to his team was simple: get a shot.

    “We messed with the ball too much,” Barnes said. “We lost the ball on two different occasions deep in the clock, and Fulky just happened to pick it up and did the best thing he could. It was a big play. That made up for his two missed one-and-ones.”

    The three wasn’t the only play Fulkerson made to help seal the game. Fulkerson followed up his big shot with a put-back dunk that extended the Tennessee lead to four with 46 seconds remaining. Not only did it prove to seal the game for the Vols, but it energized the 19,743 fans that were in attendance to the point that chants of “Fulky” ensued.

    Fulkerson was big down the stretch despite being gassed. The junior forward played 36 minutes in total, and coming down the stretch, Florida big man Kerry Blackshear Jr. had more in the tank after sitting for much of the first half due to foul trouble. Tennessee’s coaching staff asked Fulkerson on multiple occasions if he needed a breather, but he scoffed at the thought of not being on the court.

    “He (Fulkerson) was huge,” Barnes said. “We went the distance with a lot of guys, but we just felt this was a very important game for us, and these guys have worked hard and prepared hard, and coming down the stretch the (assistant) coaches suggested to me in the last four minutes to get some guys out, and I said, ‘Nope. These guys, we’ve ridden them this far, and Im riding them the rest of the way home,’ and they got it done.

    “I just didn’t feel like it was fair to put somebody in there that hadn’t been in the game at that time because it was a high-level game at that time.”

    Tennessee’s potential All-SEC First Team member has grown accustomed to being the go-to guy during late-game situations. Fulkerson’s mindset has changed, and as a result, he now understands what he needs to do. The rest of the team has understood attacking the basket and trying to get the ball inside as well.

    “It’s not in his (Fulkerson) nature to play the way he’s been playing, where he’s been game-planned for,” Barnes said. “He gets pushed, he gets shoved around more than any player I’ve ever coached. Really, he gets shoved a lot. People think he’s flopping out there, he’s not. He’s light, he’s quick.

    “His motor is what makes him different. But he gets pushed off position a lot. He gets walked under more than what people might think. But he never complains about it. When he’s talking to officials, something has happened, because he never does that. His mindset has changed, where he does realize we need him to be aggressive.”

    Josiah-Jordan James breaks out

    Fulkerson didn’t beat Florida all on his own. Freshman Josiah-Jordan James was locked in from the jump against the Gators.

    In the first half, James led the Vols to a 32-17 halftime lead behind 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting from the field and 2-for-3 shooting from the three-point line. James added four rebounds, three assists, and a steal compared to just one personal foul and one turnover.

    “I’d definitely say the first half was the best half I’ve played,” James said. “I wasn’t happy with the way I played the second half, so I’ve got to find a way to do it for 40 minutes.

    “I was a little tired going into the second half. Fatigue had a little bit to do with it. Looking back, I probably should have gotten a sub for two or three minutes. I’ve just got to do a better job of handling pressure. Fatigue just played a big part.”

    James’ freshman season on Rocky Top hasn’t necessarily gone according to plan. Multiple injuries have made for a difficult rookie campaign. A hip injury caused him to miss nearly the entirety of preseason practice. He then re-aggravated the injury towards the end of January, which caused him to miss four games.

    In the first four games since returning from injury, James was a shell of himself. He was averaging 3.3 points per game on 27.7 percent shooting from the field and 28.5 percent from the three-point line in those four games. To compound the struggles, James had 10 turnovers in those four games, which was the same amount of assists he recorded in that same span.

    This past week, following a trip to Arkansas where James was 0-for-6 from the field with three fouls, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said that he wanted his freshman guard to be more aggressive on both ends of the floor. In Tennessee’s 63-58 win over Florida on Saturday afternoon, James did just that.

    “We told him to be good at what he’s good at,” Barnes said. “And I thought he did that.

    “More direction and us just saying, ‘This is what we want you to do, and this is what you got to do.’ We talked about playing inside-out, but when guys are open, we want them to shoot the ball. We’re not going to not shoot open shots even though we want to have a mindset of playing inside-out, and I thought he did that.”

    Tennessee will need the five-star version of James that showed up against the Gators on Tuesday night when they face No. 6 Kentucky. After all, Barnes realizes the Vols are a different team when James plays to his ability.

    “He’s feeling better than he’s probably felt at any point in time this year,” Barnes said. “He came out and I thought set a great tone for us against Florida. We need him to continue to do that.”

    All the emotions

    Tennessee beat Florida before the game even began on Saturday.

    Freshman guard Santiago Vescovi’s home in Uruguay is a 13-hour flight to Knoxville, and his family had never been to Thompson-Boling Arena to see him play. Well, at least until Saturday.

    Vescovi’s parents and sister surprised him with their first-ever visit to Knoxville prior to the game. In a video that Tennessee basketball’s Twitter account tweeted out, Vescovi was under the assumption that he was on camera doing an interview and had no idea his family was in town.

    Vescovi went on to score 11 point and dish out four assists in 34 minutes.

    “It is special because he has been a special teammate to all of us and a special teammate to be around,” Barnes said. “I think about it, they are a really close-knit family obviously. They had talked about it for a week how they were going to do it.”

    After the game, both Vescovi and his family spoke with the media about the surprise visit and what all went into his family getting to Knoxville. Vescovi also talked about his play and the Vols’ win over the Gators.

    Here’s everything Vescovi and his family had to say after Saturday’s game:

    Previewing Kentucky

    Following the big win over the Gators, Tennessee now turns its attention to a trip to Lexington. The Vols will face No. 6 Kentucky at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.

    Kentucky is coming off a big win over then-ranked No. 15 Auburn. The Cats defeated Auburn 73-66 on Saturday afternoon in the process of winning their 49th regular-season SEC championship. UK’s win also locked up the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament.

    “I think Kentucky is the most underrated, underappreciated team in the country right now,” Barnes said. “I think them, along with Kansas, are the two best teams in the country.

    “(Kentucky has) two players that you have to think, Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards, are two guys you have to look at as player of the year type candidates. There are a lot of terrific coaches in our league. No one has done a better job than John Calipari.”

    As Barnes alluded to, Quickley has been huge for Kentucky. The sophomore guard is averaging 18.2 points per game during Kentucky’s eight-game win streak. During this stretch of play, he’s eclipsed 20 points four times and scored a career-high 30 points on Tuesday night at Texas A&M. His 16.3 points per game overall leads UK and ranks eighth in the SEC.

    Richards has also been a huge force for the Wildcats, ranking third on the team in scoring (13.9 ppg) and first in both rebounds (7.8 rpg) and blocks (2.2 bpg). His 7.8 rebounds ranks third in the SEC and his 2.2 blocks per game trail only Tennessee’s Yves Pons for the most in the league.

    “They’re as lethal as any team you’ll play against,” Barnes said. “They’ve improved a lot since their last game here.

    “I think we’ve improved a lot. That game, we started a big lineup because I think Josiah (Jordan James) didn’t play. We’re going to have to continue to get better. Our guys coming off the game against Florida should feel good, but again, going on the road and arguably playing the best team in college basketball.”

    With a win over Kentucky on Tuesday night, Tennessee could be on the verge of being back on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.

    Can Tennessee sneak into the NCAA Tournament?

    But in order for Tennessee to potentially make it back on to the bubble, the Vols will not only need to beat Kentucky on the road Tuesday night, but they’ll also need to follow it up with a win over Auburn at home on Saturday afternoon to finish the season. But even if Tennessee was able to pull of the unimaginable, it would still need to do some work in the SEC Tournament.

    Rocky Top Insider’s managing editor Nathanael Rutherford took a look at the Vols chances of sneaking into the NCAA Tournament following the win over Florida.

    According to, the Vols have just a 21.7 percent chance of making the NCAA Tournament. If they do, their most likely seed is a 12-seed per those projections, with a 10.5 percent shot of earning that berth.

    Team Rankings projects the Vols’ most likely record to be 17-14 to end the regular season, giving UT a 49.1 percent chance of earning that outcome. Tennessee is basically given a 50/50 shot at defeating Auburn at home, as Team Rankings gives UT a 49.6 percent chance at beating the Tigers. Tennessee only has a 21.3 percent shot at defeating Kentucky in Lexington.

    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also the host of the RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.