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 led this Tennessee team in scoring and rebounding for most of the season, now averaging 10.2 points and 5.8 rebounds on the year.
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. In the first match up against Kentucky this season, Fulkerson couldn’t stay on the floor without fouling, picking up four fouls in 10 minutes and scoring zero points.
2. Freshman duo
Just two weeks ago, the Vols knocked off the Cats in Lexington, and the bulk of the scoring for Tennessee came at the hands of two freshmen guards. While holding Fulkerson to a goose egg in the scoring column, the Cats had no answer for the young guns in the Tennessee backcourt. Freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer combined to score 50 of the Volunteers 82 points in the Tennessee’s win over Kentucky two weeks ago. The two players have been playing extremely well as of late, bolstering the Vols balanced scoring attack of seven players scoring 8.9 or more points per game on the year.
Keon Johnson stands at 6’5″ and 185 pounds as a freshman out of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Against Kentucky earlier this season, he had 27 points on 9 of 16 shooting and 9 of 11 at the free throw line. He also had four rebounds, three assists, a block, and a steal in a dominating effort. His running mate, Jaden Springer, nearly matched his scoring output. Springer measures at 6’4″ and 204 pounds, finishing with 23 points on 9 of 17 shooting. The Charlotte, North Carolina native grabbed five boards, swatted two shots, and had one steal. If Kentucky can’t manage to contain these first-year guards, expect Tennessee to roll over the Cats for the second time this season.
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 sixth 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 62.3 points per game, Tennessee ranks 14th in the country in overall defense and ninth 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 27th in opponent shooting percentage at 40.2%, 27th in opponent turnovers per game at 15.9 per game, and 28th in opponent effective shooting percentage. On top of all that, the Vols rank eighth in the country in opponent floor percentage, which measures how often an opponents possession turns into a scoring possession. In the first match up against Kentucky, a massive second half collapse by Kentucky offensively was the reason Tennessee was able to pull away. The Cats’ inability to produce against the Tennessee defense fueled the Tennessee offense to an 11-point victory.
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. Tennessee then lost to an Ole Miss team that has a losing conference record, before beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Even after beating Kentucky, Tennessee lost in convincing fashion to LSU to bring their overall record to 15-5 on the year, with a No.19 ranking in the AP Poll. The preseason odds-on favorite to win the SEC now sits at 4th in the conference with less than two weeks to play.
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 8 of the last 13 games against the Wildcats.
More recently, Tennessee has beaten Kentucky in four of the last five 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 156-75 overall record. Tonight will be only the fourth time since John Calipari started at Kentucky that the Cats will be unranked going into a game against Tennessee. Tonight’s game, in Thompson-Boling Arena, has the Cats sitting as a 7.5 point underdog to the Volunteers.
Go Cats. Beat Vols.