It has been a year of ups and downs for this Tennessee basketball team, there’s no denying that. As the season began, the Vols were looking to break in a few potential stars. But as the season has drawn on, its looked like Tennessee was missing a few returning stars.
As John Fulkerson was entering the season, coming off an All-SEC type of year, the focus was going to be on the man from East Tennessee. It was obvious how opponents would play him, double teaming at times and forcing him out of the paint. This game plan has been working and it has been obvious to Rick Barnes as well, even last night after he scored 15 second half points.
“Our offense since Fulky has been here hasn’t changed a whole lot, and if it had changed some, it’s because we have had to take advantage of some other talent. Otherwise, his position really hasn’t changed that much. We said they’re going to have to do it.”
Fulkerson has all the ability in the world to be a forceful player underneath the basket, but he’s even better in transition. As the second half clock was ticking down last night, John was looking to takeover. He was fast up the court, elusive with his shot and seemed to be in the right place at the right time on the fast break. Rick Barnes said it was his best night of running he has seen out of the senior all year.
“I thought he did the best job of running tonight that he’s done all year. He really ran the floor hard and again I think he’s got to play quicker in the post, and he is wanting to catch it and spin and do this and that. He’s not going to get time to do that, unless he does his work early.”
This is actually pretty simple. If John Fulkerson and Yves Pons can put in the type of effort that you saw against South Carolina on a consistent basis, the Vols have a chance to finish the season in April.
But, Rick Barnes needs to see these guys be aggressive every single night, especially since the season is winding down.
“We need them both to be aggressive. It’s that simple. That’s not just offensively. We need them to be aggressive defensively, we need them rebounding. That’s two-thirds of our front line most nights. Offensively, they want to get involved. They probably could’ve done a little more tonight, without having to call sets. That position in our offense has a lot of freedom, but you have to get yourself involved.”
Fulkerson was asked during the postgame press conference about what he has done over the last few weeks to hold himself accountable.
“You just have to keep working and know what’s gotten you to this point. With all the hard work you’ve put in, don’t stop, because you think you’ve arrived or it’s going to be easier. You’ve got to work even harder than that now and keep putting the time in. You also need to stay mentally strong and mentally locked in. That’s what I always say is a really big part of the game, the mental side. I probably couldn’t have done this without my teammates and coaches and I think the whole team can say that we like to pick each other up.”
This is the type of answer you want to hear from a leader. Yes, he has been through a weird year where nothing seems to make sense on the court. But, he didn’t throw in the towel and give it off to the other players. He decided to be that difference maker on Wednesday night, helping his team to victory.
There’s one thing about this Tennessee basketball team that they need to capitalize on, the consistency. They can put up performances like the one against the Gamecocks, but if you don’t play the same way against Kentucky, then there’s no reward. John Fulkerson knows how this team can play, but he also knows they need to be consistent with their play over the next few weeks.
“It’s the most important thing and my dad always says that it’s not how you start, but how you finish. So, we need to be playing our best basketball here at the end of the season, coming together as a team and clicking on all cylinders, because it could be a one possession or one play game that could end our season. This is a very important time for us. We have to come together, be totally locked in and realize that, that one possession could end our season.”
Kentucky comes to town on Saturday afternoon and if the Vols can bring the same type of energy to the Wildcats then it should be a win. But, if they don’t bring the consistent pressure, it will be another game Tennessee has wasted because they couldn’t capitalize on momentum.