Josiah-Jordan James deemed John Fulkerson the leader of Tennessee’s basketball team heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Following Friday afternoon’s disappointing loss to Oregon State in the Round of 64, where Fulkerson had to sit out due to an injury, James made it clear that he wants to improve as one of the team’s leaders going forward. The Vols roster could look completely different next season—how different is to be determined.
If Fulkerson chooses to return for another year, he would be an obvious choice as one of the leaders. Regardless, James wants to take that next step for his team.
“This year, I was a leader and I wasn’t a very good one,” James said following Friday’s loss. “It showed today. Moving forward, I can only hope to be better, and I will be better for this team and this university, for this program. I just hope that we can get back here again next year.”
Tennessee freshmen guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson now have decisions to make regarding their future. Both players are expected to go through the NBA draft process this summer.
With Fulkerson and Yves Pons out of the mix—along with the potential of losing Springer and Johnson—Tennessee will desperately need James’ leadership moving forward. He averaged 8.0 points and grabbed a team-high 6.5 rebounds per game this season, despite dealing with some injury issues down the stretch.
“It is very frustrating to go out like this with the team that we had and the firepower that we had,” James said. “It falls on me as a leader of this team. I’ll be the most disappointed of anybody. I’m not going to curl up into a ball and not do anything about it. You live and you learn and I’ve learned a lot from this year.”
Tennessee proved that it was capable of putting everything together several times this season, beating Arkansas, Kansas and Colorado, among others. The Vols finished fourth in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings.
They were never able to overcome an inconsistent offense that went through droughts on a regular basis. Tennessee was outside the top 200 in 3-point shooting and was barely inside that number from 2-point range.
“If you look at our team all year, it was the inconsistency, not really knowing from game to game what we were going to get,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “That is, if you ask me, the most disappointing thing, because, to be a championship caliber team, you’ve got to be more consistent. You can’t turn the ball over the way we did and you’ve got to be able to rebound.”
The Vols finished No. 206 in opponent’s offensive rebounding rate. Their lack of an inside presence was a glaring issue against Oregon State, but that was not the first time it had been a problem this season.
“No one’s had a more disappointing year than John Fulkerson,” Barnes said. “I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of things that I feel bad about, but maybe none more than him because he had high expectations coming in and he struggled for the major part of the year.”
Tennessee was ranked as high as No. 6 in the Associated Press Poll and was a popular pre-season pick to make the Final Four. Inconsistency doomed the Vols’ title hopes, though, leading to a frustrating finish in Indianapolis.
“It’s been a hard year,” Barnes said. “If I said anything otherwise, it wouldn’t be honest. I wouldn’t be honest with you.”