CBB Top 25 Breakdown
Forty-five percent of Tennessee’s scoring entering Tuesday night’s game came from newcomers. However, it was all about the Vols’ veterans who kept on delivering and handed No. 6 Arizona its first loss of the season, 77-73.
Freshman phenom Kennedy Chandler has been by far Tennessee’s best offensive player so far this season, but the speedster struggled against the Wildcats, scoring just eight points on a putrid two-of-14 shooting from the field.
When Chandler has struggled to score this season, Tennessee’s offense has become completely reliant on the three-point shot.
The Vols’ three-point shooting faltered — seven-of-24 from deep — but UT wasn’t reliant on it. That’s where John Fulkerson entered the picture.
Scratch that, that’s where 2019-20 John Fulkerson entered the picture.
The super senior said he felt like “he couldn’t be stopped.” Arizona certainly couldn’t.
Fulkerson scored 24 points — his most since his 27 point performance at Rupp Arena two seasons ago — on an efficient eight-of-13 shooting from the field. The Kingsport native also grabbed 10 rebounds and drew 13 fouls, leading Rick Barnes to say it should count as a triple double.
“Fulky came out 30 minutes before everyone today for shootaround,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “When I left last night after our meeting he was on the floor shooting. He knows this is his last year and there’s no doubt he wants to give it to them. … He was terrific, he really was.”
Those fouls proved critical as Fulkerson put Arizona’s front court in foul trouble. Christian Koloko and Bennedict Mathurin fouled out while Azuolas Tubelis picked up four fouls.
“It really wasn’t my game plan going in to draw fouls,” Fulkerson said. “Going in I knew they had some great players. The thing we talked about with them is they were tops in the nation in shots blocked and they had a guy averaging four blocks. We knew that shot fakes and pump fakes would be really crucial in this game. That’s what I tried to do.”
Fulkerson wasn’t the only Tennessee veteran that stepped up against the Wildcats. Josiah Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi — who behind Fulkerson have the most career minutes on this team — delivered when UT needed them.
Like always, James did all the little things well. The junior forward grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots and recorded two steals. The former five-star recruit also added 12 points and hit a timely three to break an Arizona run early in the second half.
It wasn’t Vescovi’s best shooting night, making just five-of-16 attempts and three-of-12 three-pointers. However, the junior guard made winning plays on both ends of the court.
With Fulkerson on the bench, Chandler started cramping midway though the second half. That left the Vols without their two best offensive creators.
Vescovi stepped up on back-to-back possessions, scoring at the basket and hitting a step back three to bail out a poor offensive possession.
The veteran trio of Fulkerson, James and Vescovi combined for 51 of Tennessee’s 75 points (68%) in the Vols’ biggest statement win of the season.
“I thought our older guys when we needed something, kind of going back to where they made a push, the older guys were the guys that did it,” Barnes said. “I talk about the glue, it’s really always Jo(siah) and Santi(ago).”
More than the scoring, the veteran trio made winning plays when the game mattered most. Their leadership kept Tennessee grounded as they took punch after punch from Arizona in the final 25 minutes of the game.
Their performance and leadership — as well as the raucous 20,408 crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena — secured a Merry Christmas for Tennessee basketball.
“It’s great to be a Tennessee Vol,” Barnes said. “When this place gets rocking it’s as good as anywhere.”