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Latest NCAA eligibility ruling could help Vols on the basketball court

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers are going to be very good this season, but are faced with filling a couple of big roles in the frontcourt after the 2020-21 campaign. John Fulkerson, Yves Pons and E.J. Anosike are all seniors, each playing their final seasons in Knoxville.

Unless they aren’t.

The NCAA ruled last week that they would be freezing eligibility for this winter sports year, following the ruling they made for fall sports. This means that no basketball player will lose a season of eligibility in 2020-21, opening the door for those three seniors to return in 2021-22 if they would like.

Here’s the official wording from the NCAA.

Winter sport student-athletes who compete during 2020-21 in Division I will receive both an additional season of competition and an additional year in which to complete it, the Division I Council decided. The same flexibility was provided to student-athletes after the spring season was canceled in 2020 and the fall season was seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Rick Barnes, this is a big opportunity to keep a core group together with potential championship upside.

“That was my first recruiting call that day, I got over here and I said man you’re gonna be a lifer,” Barnes said last week, speaking of John Fulkerson. “I’ve said it before I would have loved to have a guy like Kevin Durant forever, and I will say the same thing about Fulky. Those guys will have to explore at the end of the year where they might be in terms of their future, but I don’t think it’s going to hurt anybody, there’s not a guy on this team who wouldn’t benefit by being in our program another year.”

Yves Pons would likely head to the NBA next season regardless, barring injuries or a massive change. Pons declared for the draft last year, but opted to return after receiving feedback.

However, John Fulkerson and E.J. Anosike might be a different story. Fulkerson has developed over time and turned himself into someone that the NBA might be interested in. If he were to stay, it would be his sixth season in the Tennessee program. How he develops throughout the year would likely determine his final decision.

The ruling could allow Anosike to play two seasons with the Volunteers, which would seem like something he would be interested in. As a 6-7, 245 pound post player, his chances at an NBA career seem slim. Of course, both Fulkerson and Anosike could also entertain starting their careers overseas, as many do.

Rick Barnes’ track record at Tennessee speaks for itself and should help him in this “recruiting process,” as he called it. This NCAA ruling is a much bigger deal on the basketball side than football, obviously impacting roster construction in a larger way.

It’s a fascinating wrinkle that might just play right into Tennessee’s hands.