Fulkerson adjusts to bigger role for Vols

Jeff Birchfield • Mar 29, 2020 at 12:00 PM

John Fulkerson went from a role player to a starring role for the Tennessee Volunteers basketball team.

As a junior, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged team bests with 13.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game for the 2019-20 season. It was significant improvements from 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds the previous year.

Back home in Kingsport, he talked about it being a natural progression as he started all 31 games.

“The first of the season we had a couple of the best guards in the country in Lamonte (Turner) and (Jordan) Bowden. The offense was going to go through them,” he said. “As the season went, I played myself into the role I was in.”

Fulkerson was asked to take on a bigger scoring role when starting point guard Turner was forced to end his college career to have season-ending shoulder surgery. Guard Santiago Vescovi and post Uros Plavsic later entered the lineup after being cleared by the NCAA, but the Vols never got to be at full strength during a 17-14 season.

“With Lamonte having season-ending surgery, then Santiago taking over as starting point guard halfway through the season, it made a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “I think if we would have had our whole team and everybody healthy, some games would have had different outcomes.”

It left Vols fans wondering what if Turner and Vescovi could have played together in the backcourt. Vescovi brought needed outside shooting after Tennessee struggled from long range in the early season. Particularly rough was a 51-47 loss to Memphis when both teams were ranked in the Associated Press Top 20.

Turner had five points on 1-of-11 shooting in the game. Fulkerson counts it among the handful of most frustrating losses.

“The Memphis game was frustrating to lose because there was a lot of hype around that game, an in-state rival,” he said. “It was disappointing to lose that game. The Texas A&M game was disappointing also. A couple others that come to mind are the Wisconsin game at home and game at Georgia. We had a few games this season we didn’t feel like we played Tennessee basketball.”

They certainly played “Tennessee basketball” the second half of an 81-73 win at Kentucky. The Vols rallied from a 17-point deficit as Fulkerson had his best game of the season. He totaled a career-high 27 points, going 10 for 15 from the field and 7 for 7 from the free-throw line.

With the big comeback and Fulkerson’s performance, it’s a game many believe will go down as one of the greatest victories in program history.

“It’s something that I or a lot of people will never forget with the comeback at Rupp Arena,” he said. “We beat the No. 6 team in the nation at Kentucky with their fans. That game was a great team effort, fighting through the ups and downs and sticking together as a team.”

However, a 63-58 home win over Florida was even bigger for Fulkerson. It was another game he went 10 for 15 from the field, this time in a 22-point effort. He talked about how intense the rivalry with the Gators has become. Tennessee has won the last four games in the rivalry to hold a 72-55 advantage in the all-time series.

“Kentucky is definitely a rival, but Florida is a bigger rival for us,” Fulkerson said. “That’s the game we always look forward to. At that point of the season, we knew it was a must-win game. We knew we had to play well to beat them. We were up by a lot at the beginning and at the end they came back, but we made the plays at the end to beat them.”

Likely needing to win the Southeastern Conference tournament to earn an NCAA tournament bid, the Vols were scheduled to play another rival, Alabama, on Thursday, March 12 when the season abruptly ended. The Vols were in Nashville and ready to go when word came the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was an hour before the game when we learned about it. We were about to walk on the court to warm up when we heard they canceled it,” he said. “We had heard about them canceling the NBA season and other tournaments, so we didn’t know if we would get to play it all or not. But we walk out of the locker room and they cancel it right there.”

After the game was canceled, Fulkerson’s mother, Ramona, made the decision to turn the negative situation into something positive. She stayed in Middle Tennessee to help victims of recent tornadoes. Fulkerson wasn’t surprised to see how his mom reacted.

“That shows who she is. Hopefully, I can show that too in some ways,” he said. “She’s always trying to help others and putting others first. She’s always talking about using the blessings we have to help others.”

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