1. Yes, he’s still there
If you’re anything like me as a Kentucky fan, there are always certain players for SEC teams that seem like they have endless eligibility. For me, one of those players is Tennessee’s John Fulkerson. I remember seeing Fulkerson as a freshman at Tennessee, and he was a super skinny kid that looked like he may still be 16 years old. Since then, he’s grown two inches, still hasn’t bulked up a ton, gaining 12 pounds, and still looks like the stereotypical goofy white kid on the floor. Despite that appearance, he’s got some very solid skills on the floor. As a fifth year senior, he leads this Tennessee team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 11 points and 5.9 rebounds on the season.
Fulkerson has a really nice turnaround fading jumper that he can hit on a consistent basis. He keeps a really high release that makes it tough to defend. Last season, Fulkerson had a field day using that shot against the Cats. In the first match up, which Kentucky won, he finished with 16 points and 7 rebounds. Kentucky struggled to defend him without fouling (assisted by some flopping on Fulkerson’s end), as he shot 12 free throws. In the second match up, a Tennessee comeback victory in Rupp, Fulkerson dominated, scoring 27 points on 10 of 15 from the field, to go along with 6 boards. Not allowing Fulkerson to dictate how often he gets to the free throw line, as well as keeping him off the boards will go far in a Kentucky upset bid tonight.
2. Balanced scoring attack
With Fulkerson leading Tennessee in scoring at just 11 points per game, one might assume that they are a low scoring team. The Vols are a middle of the road scoring team, but they just don’t have one player that does all the scoring for them. Seven players averaging between 11 and 8.3 points per game makes for an extremely balanced scoring attack for the Volunteers this season. Fulkerson leads the team, but just behind him is the only other Vol scoring in double-figures, Oregon-transfer Victor Bailey Jr, who scores 10.3 points per game.
Third and fourth on the scoring list for Tennessee are the 9.6 points per game from freshman Jaden Springer and the 9.4 points per game from senior Yves Pons. Freshman Keon Johnson averages 9 points, sophomore Santiago Vescovi averages 8.7, and sophomore Josiah-Jordan James averages 8.3 to round out the top seven. All seven of those players have been the game high scorer in at least one game this season for Rick Barnes. Despite all those scoring options, Tennessee has only had three instances where a player has scored 20+ points in a game.
3. Defensive stalwart
Tennessee uses a real team effort scoring the ball and on the other end of the floor, the team effort is evident as well. The Vols rank 8th in the SEC in steals and fifth in the SEC in blocks, not exactly excelling in either. While Tennessee is an average team when it comes to stuffing the stat sheet on the defensive end, they still are one of the best defensive teams in the country. They really slow the game down for their opponents, giving them fewer opportunities at quick possessions. Allowing just 58.9 points per game, Tennessee ranks fourth in the country in overall defense and sixth in the country in defensive efficiency. Leading the SEC in both categories puts Tennessee as the best defensive team in the conference without a doubt.
The Volunteers rank in the top 30 nationally in several defensive categories. They are 26th in opponent shooting percentage at 39.3%, 27th in opponent turnovers per game at 16.1 per game, and 25th in opponent effective shooting percentage. On top of all that, the Vols rank third in the country in opponent floor percentage, which measures how often an opponents possession turns into a scoring possession. For a team like Kentucky that struggles to score against even the weakest of defensive teams, tonight could be even more of a low-scoring affair than normal.
4. Recent struggles for the Vols
Tennessee came into the season as one of the favorites to win the SEC, and the media tabbed them as the preseason pick to win the conference. The Vols started the season as hot as any other team and looked like they’d fit the bill from the preseason. Despite three of their first four games being canceled due to Covid, there wasn’t much rust to knock off as the Volunteers won all six of their non-conference games, albeit against some pretty poor competition. Sporting a 6-0 record going into SEC play, Tennessee beat up on No. 12 Missouri in Columbia to start conference play with a bang. Just three days later, the Vols hosted an unranked Alabama team in Knoxville and lost their first game of the season.
That loss to Alabama was the beginning of Tennessee being a bit of an enigma on a game by game basis. Tennessee won three straight over Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Vandy, having the Vols looking like they were back on track. However, the Volunteers dropped back to back games following their three game winning streak. A blowout loss at Florida and a nine-point loss to Missouri at home, followed by just barely beating a not great Mississippi State team at home had Tennessee fans scratching their heads. The Vols bounced back, dominating Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, but the winning ways didn’t last long. Just earlier this week, Tennessee lost to an Ole Miss team that has a losing conference record. Coming into tonight’s game, Tennessee has lost three of their last five, and four of their last nine. Sitting ranked at No. 11 in the AP Poll, recent play from the Vols has shown they are definitely beatable on a nightly basis.
5. Recent struggles against the Vols
It’s no question that ever since Rick Barnes got to Tennessee, the series has been a much more evenly matched than through the first half of the Calipari era at Kentucky. Some of that has to do with Tennessee having some of their best teams ever in that span, and some of that has to do with Kentucky having a few teams that didn’t dominate conference play like some of the early John Calipari teams. When Calipari first started in Lexington, Kentucky won 9 of the first 11 match ups. Since Rick Barnes took over in Knoxville, Tennessee has won 7 of the last 12 games against the Wildcats.
More recently, Tennessee has beaten Kentucky in three of the last four meetings. Kentucky hasn’t had more than a two-game winning streak over the Volunteers since 2013. Obviously, Kentucky still dominates the overall series against Tennessee, with a 156-74 overall record. Tonight will be only the third time since John Calipari started at Kentucky that the Cats will be unranked going into a game against Tennessee. Tonight’s game, in Rupp Arena, opened with the Volunteers at a 4-point favorite, which has been bet down to around 3.5 as of this afternoon.
Go Cats. Beat Vols.