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Three Things: Kentucky

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee got things back on track, for now, by beating the ‘Cats 82-71 in Lexington. Here are three things.

Fun side note: The Vols are now 8-5 (UT has won four of the last five) against Kentucky since Head Coach Rick Barnes took the job in 2016.

Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson — Basketball Players, Thieves

Tennessee’s freshmen guards stole the show against Kentucky Saturday night. Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson combined for 50 of Tennessee’s 82 points on a rather efficient 18-33 shooting performance. Both players set new single-game scoring career highs — Jaden with 23 and Keon with 27 — and each added something to the winning effort besides points: Springer had five rebounds and tied Josiah-Jordan James for the team-lead in blocks with two, while Johnson stuffed the box score with four boards, three assists, one steal, one block and zero turnovers. They also accounted for every. single. one. of Tennessee’s free throw makes and attempts Springer going 4-4 and Johnson hitting nine-of-11.

As awesome and considerable and important as all the above stuff is, it’s the duo’s second-half exploits that were perhaps most integral to the win. Kentucky went up 10 with 12 minutes left, and the Spring-On duo scored or assisted on every point of the 12-0 Tennessee run that gave the Vols the lead with a little less than nine minutes to go in the game. Springer and Johnson then accounted for 17 of Tennessee’s final 22 points and scored or assisted on all but one Vol basket during the game’s final nine minutes. Altogether, in the second half Johnson scored 17 points, Springer scored 14 and they were directly or indirectly responsible for 39 of UT’s 48 points.

John Fulkers0n

John Fulkerson, Tennessee’s most important and breakout performer from 2019, didn’t register a single point against Kentucky Saturday. He picked up two fouls in the first three-ish minutes of the game, and that’s usually a death sentence for a guy’s first half playing time with Rick Barnes. The ‘Cats present a tough matchup in the post — Sarr is 7-0, Jackson is 6-10 and Toppin is 6-9 — but Fulkerson’s foul trouble isn’t something unique to just this last game. Overall, his fouls per-100 possessions are down from six last season to four this season, but his usage rate is down, too, from 21.5 to 19.4 percent. During Tennessee’s first nine games, Fulkerson averaged just 1.3 fouls per contest, averaged 11.7 points and the Vols went 8-1. In the eight game since, his fouls are up to 2.4 per game, his scoring is down to 8.9 points per game and Tennessee is 5-3. He’s had at least three fouls in four of these last eight contests, and the Vols are 1-3 in those outings (Kentucky being the one win.)

Big John has also failed to score in double figures five times this season, and each of those five games have come in Tennessee’s last 10 outings with the Vols posting a 2-3 record.

His scoring numbers are definitely down from last season, 27.4 points per 100 possessions then to 22.7 now, but that’s likely at least somewhat a derivative of the lower usage rate and the increased number of viable scoring options on the roster. On the plus side, he’s a posting better rebounding numbers (12.5 per 100 this year, 11.8 last year), and his defensive rating is significantly better this season (90.0) than it was last season (96.9).

Correlation / = / causation, and there are too many factors at play here to make any real single-handed, empirical determination about Fulkerson’s fouls, his scoring and the relative effect it has on Tennessee’s team.

Either way, he may not be the same player he was last season — and to some degree that’s okay because he doesn’t necessarily have to be, there’s still no question he’s got to be better than he was against Kentucky.

Looking Ahead

Tennessee now plays UGA on Wednesday, February 10th since the second Vols/Gators game was COVID postponed. The SEC hasn’t announced a makeup date yet. LSU, South Carolina, Kentucky, Vandy and Auburn remain on the conference slate, and Tennessee has some work to do if it better its seeding for the tourney. The Vols currently sit tied for fourth with Florida and LSU, though the Gators own that tiebreaker with UT thanks to the hammering they put on Tennessee earlier in the season.

Let’s hope Saturday’s game against Kentucky was an “aha!” moment for the Vol freshmen, and we get to see more of the former former five-star recruits play like eventual NBA lottery picks.