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Vols Need More from Fulkerson, Pons

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NCAA Basketball: St. Joseph at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

SEC play starts next week as your No. 8 ranked Tennessee Volunteers (6-0) travel to Columbia to player former Tennessee basketball men’s Head Counzo Martins and his undefeated Missouri Tigers (6-0).

The Vols have primarily relied on their defense so far this season, as the inherent athleticism, long arms and big frames of the perimeter players — Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey, Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson — have made life extremely difficult for opposing offenses. These guys suffocate with ball pressure and challenge every pass with great ball denial defense.

On the interior, senior post players Yves Pons and John Fulkerson have been solid contributors after having breakout seasons in a shortened 2019 season that left a national champion uncrowned and didn’t finish because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pons is wreaking havoc with his imposing weak-side help defense and Lebron-James-like chase-down blocks, while Fulkerson takes charges, flies out of bounds for lose balls and remains the offense’s No. 1, go-to option when a bucket is really needed.

But, and this should surprise precisely zero Tennessee fans reading this, Head Coach Rick Barnes wants and expects more from this two veteran, battle-tested forwards.

“I would like to see more consistency out of John and Yves to be quite honest with you,” Barnes said after the USC Upstate game. “I don’t think those guys have played up to the standard that we expect from them right now.”

So this is just one quote from Barnes, , and it doesn’t mean that he’s unhappy with the production from his senior duo, but he’s also never been one to mince words — if he messes up, he tells us. If his players mess up, he tells us.

This sort-of upfront style with the media is extremely refreshing, especially here in Knoxville where the football team is hidden like Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt is afraid they’re going to spill the nuclear missile launch codes to the Russians in some sort of coded message.

Whatever — my point is that if Rick Barnes says it, its worth paying attention.

Fulkerson is playing about four minutes less this season per game, but he’s attempting the same number of shots, 8.2, and converting 4.2 of those into makes whereas last season he averaged five makes per game. That accounts almost perfectly for his scoring dip, 13.7 point last season to 11.8 this season. His overall field-goal percentage has fallen from 61 percent last year to 52 percent this year. But, on the plus-side, He’s turning the ball over less — just one per-game down from nearly two per-game last year, and he’s committing fewer fouls as those are down from three per-game to 1.2.

Pons is seeing a similar dip in production: His minutes are down, points per-game are down, his field-goal percentage is down, his 3-point percentage has cratered (from 35 percent to barely 18 percent) and he’s averaging fewer blocks (from 2.4 to 1.2). Like Fulkerson, though, his turnovers and personal fouls are down — the reasoning for this could be he and Fulky are fouling less and being more careful with the ball, but it could also be a function of each guy having a lower usage rate this season than they did last season.

With the overhauled roster and a bunch of new guys playing big minutes and contributing both offensively and defensively, it’s less-than-surprising that Pons and Fulkerson would see drops in their numbers.

Pons went thru the draft process last season but elected to stay, most likely because his stock wasn’t high enough to warrant an early-entry to the draft. I would imagine scouts love his athleticism and shot-blocking ability but wanted him to prove to be a more consistent shooter from 3-point range. He’s not done that so far this season.

I don’t know that Fulkerson has a future playing basketball anywhere except Europe, but I can see a coach falling in love with his intangibles.

If Barnes wants more from these guys, then you know what? I do, too. But even if they don’t reach the point where this season’s number match last season’s, they both provide good examples for the younger guys on how to approach the game from a preparation and attitude standpoint.

I hope you and yours had a wonderful Christmas. The Baller Vols travel to Mizzou Wednesday in what should be an excellent game — get ready!