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Rick Barnes: I still believe in John Fulkerson

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

John Fulkerson hasn’t lived up to expectations as a senior. He’ll tell you that, Rick Barnes will tell you that — anyone reading this will agree. The lovable post player from Kingsport experienced a breakout season as a junior, as things fell on his shoulders with Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone leaving for the NBA.

After watching what Williams, Schofield and Bone became, it was natural to assume that Fulkerson would do somewhat of the same. However, that next step was not taken by Fulkerson in his admittedly strange senior season. If anything, Fulkerson has taken a step backwards in the second half of the year, reduced to a minimal role in the Tennessee offense.

Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer have taken on the heavy lifting of late, as Fulkerson’s minutes and shots have been on a steady decline.

“Well, I still believe in John Fulkerson, I do,” Rick Barnes said during his Tuesday press conference. “I know that he’s still trying to put the work in to do what he needs to do, and he’s still a big part of this. I’ve seen a lot of things in my lifetime in this business. I’ve seen guys struggle, then all at once the light clicks back on. I’ve seen guys rolling, and then the light goes off. I just don’t think you can quit on people that put everything they’ve had into the program.”

Fulkerson is now the fourth leading scorer on the Tennessee team, averaging nine points per game. He’s scored in the single digits in seven of the last eight games, after opening the season by scoring in double figures in 11 of the first 12 games.

The offense that once ran directly through Fulky has moved in a different direction amid his struggles. Now Tennessee has just one regular season game left ahead of tournament season.

“You know how much he cares,” Barnes said. “You know how much he loves this university. You know how much he loves his teammates. You know that it’s never, ever been about him ever. And, when you have high expectations and don’t live up to them as an individual or as a team, there’s disappointments. But, it’s not over until it’s over. And that’s why—again some people act like we’re going to write him out of the script. He is not going to be written out of the script, he’s not. Because he’s been too loyal, he’s worked too hard.”

Fulkerson finished his junior season averaging nearly 14 points per game. Granted, the options on that team last season were much more limited, but the confidence level between now and then is night and day.

The frustrating part is that Tennessee badly needs him. The Volunteers don’t have a post game right now, which is something that they’ve always managed to have since Barnes arrived. The offense right now essentially consists of Springer or Johnson slashing to the basket with the occasional kick-out for three, and it’s just not working. Tennessee is just 6-6 since a January loss to Florida, and have tumbled down the projected NCAA Tournament seed list.

“I’ve been through it with seniors,” Barnes continued. “I’ve been through it with really good players who’ve struggled. But one thing you don’t do—you always talk about never quitting, never giving up and I don’t think you can ever quit or ever give up on a player, ever. Especially when you have one that has been as loyal as John has been and has been as good a teammate as you could ever be around. Deep down inside, you know it bothers him. He has to deal with it, he has to deal with you guys asking it, he has to deal with everybody talking about it. But I can tell you this: I don’t know if anybody’s handled it any better, because he’s had a tough time.”

Tennessee will close their regular season against Florida in Knoxville on Sunday at noon ET. The Vols currently hold the No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament, which is slated to begin next week in Nashville.