Nichols: John Fulkerson, Tennessee basketball have ‘turned over’ a new leaf

Fair warning: the result has not been pretty.

In its first game of conference play, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team shot out of the gate like a freight train.

(And no, that’s not a Lane Kiffin reference. Calm down.)

On December 30th in Columbia, Missouri, the Vols used their talent and depth to bully 12th-ranked Missouri, with a final bludgeoning of 73-53.

That game was never as close as the final score showed, either. 

The most promising image of the night came when Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey, John Fulkerson and Josiah-Jordan James raced to pick up Yves Pons, who had fallen to the court on a charge.

Oh, how things can change in three weeks.

Instead of helping each other up after a fall, the Vols are stumbling around and even pushing each other back to the floor in terms of on-court liability.

Final score: No. 19 Missouri 73, sixth-ranked Tennessee 64.

Not the most ideal start in front of new Tennessee athletic director Danny White, who Barnes said is “a great hire” and “will do great things for this university.”

John Fulkerson, however, did not fit that description on Saturday.

He had seven points, five turnovers — three in the first five possessions — and failed to respond after Barnes called him and Yves Pons out following their performances in Gainesville.

Pons, meanwhile, was fantastic on an otherwise horrible night for the Vols. He poured in a season-high 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting from field goal range, with a 3-for-8 clip from beyond the arc.

Pons also hit all five of his shots at the free-throw line, something no one else on the Vols’ roster could do. Tennessee went 13-for-21 at the line Saturday, and it is a combined 25-of-46 in the last two games.

Against Florida, the Vols took a punch to the mouth and never recovered.

Against Mizzou, Tennessee did all it could to just dribble the basketball without turning it over — and even that didn’t work.

UT gave up 18 turnovers against the Tigers, matching the season-high it reached against Florida.

Barnes called Tennessee’s turnovers “pathetic” and “shocking,” sounding a lot like Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman as she described the football program’s NCAA violations.

And Barnes’ analysis is correct.

If this is the Vols’ version of turning over a new leaf in 2021, not only are they missing the point — they’re also three weeks late in doing so.

Saturday’s game against Missouri wasn’t just about turnovers, though. It also marked the second-straight time that Tennessee has given up over 70 points.

Barnes isn’t worried — about the defense, at least.

“I’m not as concerned with our defense as I am with our offense, because those two are married together,” he said. “If we run good offense, we’ll be better on the defensive end. There’s no doubt about it.”

That offense was missing a key piece against Mizzou.

Jaden Springer been out since aggravating a left ankle injury against Vanderbilt — it initially occurred against Alabama on January 2 — and Tennessee is 0-2 in two full games without him.

I’m not saying Springer is the sole reason for the Vols’ success, or that his absence is not not the reason for their sudden incoherence, either.

But Tennessee’s inability to drive the lane with force shows how much the Vols need their freshman weapon to return.

When will that happen?

“It’s on his timeline,” Barnes said. “He’s got to be the guy that knows when he’s ready to go, when he feels like he can give everything he’s got.”

The Vols certainly have more issues than simply missing Springer. But on offense, it seems they’ve learned to rely on him so quickly that they flounder when he isn’t on the floor, or at least ready to help.

“I think when people are pressuring you that hard, you have to be able to drive the ball to get them off of you,” Barnes said. “We don’t have enough guys right now that are willing to go make that play. I think we’ve got guys with the ability to do it, but they’re going to have to go and not predetermine, when they’re driving the ball, what they’re going to do. They have to go until they’re stopped.”

That’s what Springer is best at for Tennessee. But he can’t be the only answer.

In the football movie The Replacements, Coach Jimmy McGinty told quarterback Shane Falco that “winners want the ball when the game’s on the line.”

Tennessee does not have a guy on the roster with that mindset, at least not right now.

It had that in Grant Williams, as I’ve said before.

It could find that in Yves Pons, too, as he was one of the only bright spots on Saturday.

But my guess — just like everyone else’s — is that the guy in question is John Fulkerson.

We’ve seen Fulkerson do some amazing things at Tennessee.

At 6-foot-9, he’s gone to war with the biggest guys in the league and come out bloodied, bruised and beaten — but a winner nonetheless.

He’s battled back from injuries, risen through the depth chart and staked his claim on Rocky Top as an All-SEC pick, as well as a fan favorite.

Now, though? “The Incredible Fulk,” as he is known, has, incredibly, shrunk. And Tennessee needs its big, green, Pal’s-eating monster back.

“The scouting report on John Fulkerson is out there now ,” Barnes said. “Everybody’s getting physical with him all over the floor. He has to respond.”

Santiago Vescovi has an excuse for his performance on Saturday. His left hip, which he held with a grimace in Gainesville, is still bothering him. Still, Vescovi insisted he wanted to play. That tenacity is something for which the Vols “all admire him,” according to Barnes.

Fulkerson has no such injuries, at least to my knowledge. He just has to answer the bell — which, admittedly, starts with getting the ball.

“He should have gotten the ball a few more times,” Barnes said. “He was open when we had a little cross-screen action there, and that’s where the guards have to deliver the ball to him.”

Until either of those things happen, or until this team is able to pick up the slack enough to win in spite of Fulkerson, we’ll keep seeing results like the Florida and Missouri losses.

I mentioned in that Lady Vols-UConn column that both programs in Thompson-Boling Arena are just fine.

I take that back. Kellie Harper’s team is, certainly.

But Barnes’ group, which trudged back into its $5 million-dollar locker room after losing to a former Tennessee coach, seems to be regressing.

Cuonzo Martin whooped his way through the bowels of Thompson-Boling Arena, and rightfully so, as he seemed to release some serious Tennessee-induced emotional turmoil after the game.

Give Martin credit — this was a big win for Missouri, its first road victory over a Top-25 program since 2012.

Give even more credit to Xavier Pinson, who notched 27 points to become the first player to reach the 20-point mark against Tennessee this season.

“The fact is, Xavier Pinson controlled the game,” Barnes said. “He was terrific. And they’re playing really well. I don’t want to take anything away from (Missouri), I think Cuonzo does a terrific job. We’ve had back-to-back games against two teams we had beaten I think four times in a row.”

Four times in a row.

That’s the kicker here — that, with that kind of dominance in the rearview mirror, this was still a game Tennessee should have won. With or without the injuries and absences.

“When we get everybody healthy and strong, we’ll be alright,” Barnes said.

I’m not so sure. This seems like a problem that’s bigger than the absence of one freshman, or one point guard having hip trouble.

At the beginning of this season, all we could talk about was the depth of this team, and how there seemed to be no talent drop-off through the majority of the rotation.

Where is that depth now?

I don’t know the answer, but with ninth-ranked Kansas coming to Knoxville at the end of the month, the Vols need to turn over every leaf, rock and pebble to find it.

And who knows? Maybe they’ll come across the old John Fulkerson, too.

Tennessee could sure use him.