After COVID-19 has shuffled the schedule, the Vols are set to open their men’s basketball season in one week, on December 9th, against Tennessee Martin. When Rick Barnes and his squad tipoff the season against the Skyhawks, they will be doing so with perhaps the highest pre-season expectations in program history. The Vols enter the 2020-2021 season with a deep, versatile roster that is capable of matching up with any team in the country. The Vols have experienced players that have been through the fires of SEC play multiple times with high expectations on their shoulders, young players set to contribute in larger roles as they have grown in their time on campus, and some new arrivals in Knoxville that bring immense talent. Barnes will have a deep and well-tooled bench to supplement his starters, but everything for Tennessee starts and ends with their pair of big men, Yves Pons and John Fulkerson.
The pair of senior Tennessee big men ended last season with some impressive hardware. Pons was the first Volunteer ever named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, while Fulkerson found himself as a First Team All-SEC selection. Entering the 2020-2021 campaign, Pons and Fulkerson find themselves as All SEC Selections, as well as being listed on the Wooden Award Watch List. The Wooden Award is presented to the top basketball player in the nation. Tennessee has lofty expectations, and much of that is due to the high expectations for Pons and Fulkerson. Having two front court players on such an esteemed list is a strong statement for Rick Barnes and his program. It is further a statement of his ability to develop and grow talented players that two of his seniors are featured on the list.
Neither Pons nor Fulkerson have taken the traditional path to acclaim in college basketball. Fulkerson was putting together a strong freshman campaign when he suffered a serious injury. The Kingsport native took time to recover and rehab from his injury. By the time he was ready to return to the lineup, he found himself playing behind Grant Williams. Williams went on to win a pair of SEC Player of the Year awards, and Fulkerson backed him up, making hustle plays and grinding when given minutes. After Williams departed for the NBA, and with Kyle Alexander and Admiral Schofield also gone to the association, there was a massive vacuum for minutes and scoring in the Tennessee front court. Early in the 2019-2020 season, it was evident the Vols wanted to run more through their guards. However, as the season went on, it became that the most efficient offensive option was Fulkerson. The Vols looked like a different team as they shifted to making Fulkerson the number one offensive option. His good feet, ability to get to the basket and finish, hustle on both ends of the floor, and good defense led to Fulkerson being a First Team All-SEC selection, something that would have been considered a shock at the start of the season. Fulkerson enters the new season knowing that he will be the focal point of the Tennessee offense, and that his impressive defense, hustle, and leadership mean the Vols will count on him to set the tone as they pursue their lofty goals.
Arriving in Knoxville from France, Yves Pons also followed an atypical path to success in college basketball. As soon as he arrived on campus, it was evident that Pons was an athletic marvel. He possessed fantastic size, speed, strength, and an unreal leaping ability as a true freshman. The Vols utilized Pons as a long, athletic wing. He immediately showed the ability to be a superb on ball defender, and he showed that he could make spectacular finishes on the offensive end. This momentum led to Pons starting for the beginning of his sophomore season before Lamonte Turner took over the starting job. Pons would see some starts as a sophomore, but he still had a major role off the bench. Pons was an elite defender, but over half of his points came on dunks. As spectacular as his finishes were, the Bike needed Pons to produce more offensively. Pons worked with the French National Team in addition to his work with Rick Barnes in Knoxville between his sophomore and junior seasons. Pons arrived having focused on expanding his offensive game and willing to fill a new role for Tennessee. Thanks to the muscle mass he added since arriving in Knoxville, Pons was able to move inside for Tennessee, playing as a center for a Vols team lacking height. Pons had the strength to bully and move opposing big men like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield had done, but even at just 6’8”, his wingspan and incredible leaping ability allowed him to defend seven footers and evolve into an elite rim defender. Pons managed this without lessening his ability as an elite on ball defender. Pons gave the Vols a player who could smother any position on the floor, protect the rim, rebound, and serve as an elite shot blocker. All this was paired with a much improved offensive game, where Pons demonstrated a consistent and effective short and mid-range game, the same spectacular dunks, and a three-point shot that had to be respected.
Fulkerson and Pons have both grown tremendously as basketball players during their time at Tennessee. They have taken unlikely paths and overcome setbacks to be not only vitally important to the Volunteers, but also listed among the best players in college basketball. Tennessee was one of the best defensive teams in the nation in 2019-2020, and that is made possible by the versatility of Pons and Fulkerson. The two switch well in the block, are both capable of defending multiple positions, can defend away from the basket, and are solid rebounders. Combined with the shots blocked and impacted by the threat of Pons, the two anchor an excellent defensive unit with a unique play style. On the other end, Fulkerson is the focal point of the offense, while Pons thrives playing off of him. Pons was consistently the second or third best offensive weapon for the Vols last season, his production improving as the season went on. Pons and Fulkerson play extremely well off one another, making each other better on both ends of the floor. These senior leaders for Tennessee will have to continue their excellent play if the Vols expect to make a deep run in March.