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Takeaways: Behind Fulkerson’s Return, Nkamhoua’s Success and Chandler’s Moves, Tennessee Makes Quick Work of ETSU

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Desmond Oliver coached under Rick Barnes for six seasons in Knoxville. Because of that familiarity, he received an appropriately loud ovation Sunday when being introduced as the head coach of an ETSU program he took over earlier this year.

Still, no ovation was louder than the one unleashed for another East Tennessee favorite — one who grew up less than 30 minutes from where Oliver now coaches.

John Fulkerson made his sixth-year senior season debut on Sunday against ETSU. He announced his return to Tennessee in a Pal’s themed video this spring, but was not able to play until Sunday after a broken thumb sidelined him through the Vols’ exhibition and season opener.

Fueled by their Frenchie Fry fiend, freshman phenom Kennedy Chandler and Finnish favorite Olivier Nkamhoua, No. 18 Tennessee (2-0) made quick work of Oliver’s Bucs in a 94-62 win.

Here are our full takeaways from the matchup:

Fulk Smash, Fulk Flow: Vols Find Rhythm in Senior’s Return to Lineup

Following the aforementioned applause, Fulkerson didn’t take long to make his presence felt in Tennessee’s starting lineup. He grabbed a rebound on the Vols’ second possession, dished an assist to Olivier Nkamhoua for an 11-6 UT lead and went high for a board-turned-slam for a 24-11 advantage later in the first half.

Moreover, that aforementioned snag was not a rarity for the senior, who finished with six points and 10 rebounds despite playing with his left thumb wrapped heavily in tape. 

Fulkerson used his size throughout the afternoon, as Tennessee’s offense rotated inside-out through the Kingsport native. 

One play was especially reflective of his effect, as Fulkerson snagged a rebound high above his head before firing to a waiting Victor Bailey. 

Bailey, in turn, zipped a pass from the corner to Kennedy Chandler, who drilled a shot from the top of the key.

“That feeling, to get back out there, it’s really hard to put into words,” Fulkerson said. “Just seeing them from the sidelines and how much fun it is playing with them… to be able to contribute, it made me really excited and happy for the rest of this season.”

Despite the flashes, Fulkerson totaled just 22 minutes as he’s still working to get back into shape after being out.

“He’s worked really hard the last couple weeks while he’s been hurt, doing anything humanly possible that you can do other than play basketball,” Barnes said. “Overall, John’s been around, he knows everything we’ve got. Now he’s just got to get himself back into game shape.” 

But in order do that, the Vols’ fan favorite will to avoid his NIL deal-sponsoring restaurant — which he referenced when asked about facing his hometown team.

“They probably got some Pal’s before this game, and I didn’t,” Fulkerson said. “They’ve got one right across the street from their gym.”

Chandler Thrives Early and Often

Fulky’s comments and minutes weren’t the only highlights of the day, though, as freshman phenom Kennedy Chandler proved vital again on Sunday.

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At this point, Chandler showing out is no longer a surprise — especially since he’s had time to settle into his role in this offense. The freshman flashed early on Sunday, pouring in 16 points, all in the first half.

He shot 6-of-9 from field-goal range with a 2-of-3 mark at the arc. One lay-in was particularly impressive, as he sliced into the lane, ducked up and under a defender and finished with a finger roll at the rim.

“Kennedy’s very focused, very fast,” Nkamhoua said. “We use him as a threat every single way.”

In the second half, though, the Memphis native cooled off. Rick Barnes has mentioned already that Chandler still has to learn how to pace himself more and play through exhaustion, and that appeared the case again against ETSU.

Chandler did improve defensively from his outing against UT Martin, as he nabbed three steals steals and notched a block to earn some praise from Barnes.

“He has great respect for his teammates. There’s no entitlement,” Barnes said. “I would tell you he’s got so much more he can give. Since the last game, and he wasn’t very good against Martin defensively, he’s been tremendous. Thought he came in totally different.”

Olivier Nkamhoua Reaches New Heights

While Chandler still has more room to grow, so does veteran Olivier Nkamhoua — even after reaching a new level on Sunday. 

Nkamhoua notched a career-high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the floor, with eight rebounds, three free throws and a steal. 

His previous career-high in points came in UT’s 2021 season opener as the Finland native scored 11 against UT Martin.

“(Olivier) is not even close to scratching the surface of where he can be,” Barnes said. “Can he continue to make an effort getting boards and blocking out? I thought he showed the best poise he’s had since he’s been here. When he shoots it, we think it’s going in.”

Vols Flex Diversity and Late Long Ball, But Defense Still Can't Defend the Latter

11 Vols scored at least two points apiece on Sunday, with three Tennessee players (Chandler, Nkamhoua and Justin Powell) reaching double figures and two more (Bailey and Josiah-Jordan James) notching nine apiece. 

Powell fired several late threes and connected on 75% of them. He finished with 11 points, nine from long range, and continues to prove his accuracy despite not taking many shots. 

The Vols totaled just 23 3-point attempts, a stark contrast to a mark that's hovered around 40 tries through the preseason and first couple matchups.

Despite the success, Tennessee still appears to have trouble defending 3-pointers. ETSU took several open long balls early, and the Bucs even went the first four minutes without a shot inside the arc.

Fortunately for UT, the Bucs connected on 10 of 32 from long range with a 33.9 percentage from the floor. 

Up next, the Vols will head to play Villanova in Connecticut. They could also face North Carolina or Purdue before returning home on November 22nd to face Tennessee Tech. 

Cover photo via Jake Nichols