Despite an 11-point halftime deficit — one that ballooned to 17 in the second half — Tennessee tamed the Mild Cats and dropped No. 6 Kentucky 81-73 in front of a very ... blue Rupp Arena crowd.
This post is kinda long, so work with me here, okay? I know reading long things can be an awful lot of work, but I’ve included pictures with pretty colors and everything. It’s not quite as good as a pop-up book, but I’m doing my best. And instead of doing my usual ‘three things,” this post is just going to be us collectively basking in John Fulkerson’s brilliance.
JOHN “THE DON,” FULKERSON
This year’s Tennessee basketball team was supposed to be led by Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden. That experienced and occasionally prolific duo was supposed to be the strength of the team, but Turner’s injury and Bowden’s uneven production changed the course of the season. John Fulkerson has become the Vols’ new north star with his surprising emergence, and his play might just guide Tennessee to an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Fulky engaged a full-on, scorched-earth campaign against Kentucky Saturday night. He left nothing in his wake except the hurt feelings of one small-minded, backward racist and the ashes of his fallen enemies. (I’m not going to embed the video of the racist actively voicing her racism because SB Nation would probably prefer me not to, but if you want to see it and haven’t, click here. It’s awful, and I’m understating because this is a sports blog, and I stay in my lane. I’ll leave it at that.)
He reached into the Cats’ chest and snatched out their hearts. Then he did it again and again and again. He played 39 of 40 possible minutes and left the Kentucky faithful thanking whatever heathen deity they believe in that games have that preset, 40-minute time limit. In the end, after all the bodies hit the floor, Fulkerson finished with 27 points on 10-15 shooting and officially reset his career high in points for the fifth time this season.
The point total was obviously critical for Tennessee’s win, but the variety of ways that Fulkerson scored the ball was quite the nod to his development as a genuine offensive threat. His first bucket looked like it was supposed to be a post-entry pass from Vescovi on the court’s far side wing, but it ended up with Fulkerson getting the ball about 20 feet from the basket.
He’s a lefty, so he jab steps baseline then drives to his right for a pull-up jumper from inside 10 feet. He was quick enough to put 6-foot-11, NBA prospect and potential SEC Player of the Year Nick Richards on his heels and get a great look near the basket. It was confident, assertive and probably something that Fulkerson couldn’t — or wouldn’t — until this year.
A few possessions later, the Vols are pushing the ball on a fast break. The break started with an incredible Yves Pons block at the rim that showed his dynamic athleticism and yet somehow appeared status quo. He’s a walking paradox.
The image is dark — sorry — but this shows one of Fulkerson’s under-appreciated skills. He’s not the biggest guy nor the most gifted athlete, but he absolutely runs the floor with purpose. He’s streaking down the court with his man Richards (top left of the picture) trailing by a long way. In fact, I’d bet there were at least three outhouses closer to Fulkerson than Richards was in that moment.
Tennessee is 315th (out of 353) in Ken Pom’s adjusted tempo (basically a team’s number of possessions per 40 minutes) this season. So we don’t see much of the Vols attacking in transition, but that’s mostly because they don’t have the right point guard to orchestrate a high-octane, end-to-end, all gas and no breaks sort of offense. (Side note: Please excuse me while I swoon reminiscing on Jordan Bone’s baseline-to-baseline, whiplash inducing pace) Even so, when the chance comes around, the guards aren’t hitting a filibuster waiting for Fulkerson to plod his way down the court. He’s usually there and ready.
Note the game clock in the green boxes in the last two pictures. Fulkerson beat his man to the spot and is begging for an entry pass three seconds after he crossed half court. But as assertive as he’s become offensively, he still knows his limitations and is situationally savvy in ways that subtly remind me of Grant Williams.
Instead of going straight up and gifting Richards one of the two-plus blocks he averages per game, Fulky gives him the ole okey-doke and gets Richards in the air with a pump fake. Richards comes down on him, and Fulkerson finishes through the contact.
Alright, so we saw Fulkerson catch, face up his defender and score off the bounce; and we saw him gliding down court as a weapon on the break finding a hole in the defense before it has a chance to get set.
What’s next? We know Rick Barnes likes to get the ball inside and work the offense from there. But, early in the game, Kentucky was fronting (having the defender stay between the ball and the offensive player instead of between offensive player and the basket) and making Fulkerson earn his points. On this possession, the Vols use a series of screens down low to help get Fulkerson into an advantageous spot.
This shows Fulkerson is on the weak side, opposite of where the ball is. (Basketball is wonderful because there’s often so much going on in all the places where the ball isn’t.)
Bowden chips Richards first on the far side of the picture, and then Pons sets a good screen that gets Fulkerson without a defender in front of him denying a post feed.
The baseline becomes a sort of extra sentry defender here, so you’d think Fulkerson would drop his shoulder and try to spin right into the paint for a layup.
Instead, he used a dribble and a misdirection pivot that held Richard’s defensive posture safe and neutral, like some kinda Swiss pacifist. That created enough time and space to spin and shoot a turn-around fade away jump shot.
That’s another move we’ve seen much of until recently. It was quick, and decisive with very little wasted movement. He’s developing a proficient enough shot that defenders have to respect it and keep a hand in his face. But as you can see above, sometimes a hand up just isn’t enough.
Fulkerson had a huge game against Kentucky and helped the Vols escape Rupp with a win. The possible March Madness bid stays alive — for now — but how long can Fulkerson maintain this sort offensive heavy lifting? I reckon we’ll see one way or another against Auburn Saturday.