John Fulkerson is no stranger to defeating Kentucky at the prestigious Rupp Arena.
Fulkerson has been a part of a Tennessee team that has beaten Kentucky three times in the last four seasons, including two straight wins at Rupp. The rivalry will be renewed again Saturday.
Fulkerson and the No. 22 Vols will take on No. 18 Kentucky Saturday at 1 p.m. EST from Rupp Arena in Lexington in the first meeting of their annual two-game series.
The Vols (11-4, 2-2 SEC) have not shied away from Kentucky over recent year. Tennessee’s head basketball coach Rick Barnes has an 8-6 record against Kentucky, including wins in four of their last six matchups.
Barnes was hesitant to claim Tennessee’s success at Kentucky as anything out of the ordinary. He attributed those wins in Lexington to some good individual games from a few players — like Fulkerson’s 27 points in the Vols’ 17-point comeback last season. That comeback was given a sour taste, as the Vols were handed a thorough 15-point loss at home by the same Kentucky team weeks later.
“Those same guys that won up there a year ago came back here and beat us soundly in every way that you can be beaten,” Barnes said. “I hope we play our best game tomorrow, but I hope it's not nearly as good as the game we play after that.”
The Wildcats (13-3, 3-1 SEC) are not the same powerhouse this season that they have been in the past, but they are still no pushovers. They are led by the nation’s top rebounder Oscar Tshwiebe, who averages 15.1 rebounds per game. Led by Tshwiebe, Kentucky is the third in the nation and first in the SEC in rebounding as a team with 43.4 boards per game.
Barnes knows his defense — which is ranked No. 2 in the nation by KenPom — will have its work cut out on the glass.
“I'm not sure how Kentucky is doing it, other than that fact that Oscar has a tremendous passion and a drive to go get it and you admire it, because you want that from people,” Barnes said. “I think he understands the importance of it anyways. With what he's doing, he has to. I'd like to get some of our guys to do that with that mindset.”
For the Vols to counter Tshwiebe’s presence in the paint, they will need a full contribution from forward John Fulkerson. The Vols’ sixth-year senior went through a bad two-game stretch after returning from a positive COVID-19 test on Jan. 5.
Fulkerson has gotten healthy over the last few days, and if his efforts against South Carolina on Tuesday are any indicator, he might be out of the funk. After scoring 8 points in two games, Fulkerson turned in a 10-point, 7-rebound game to lead the Vols over South Carolina.
Fulkerson was one of four Vols to score in double figures against South Carolina, which is exactly where Barnes wants him to be. Fulkerson has the potential for the occasional huge game, but the Vols are looking for him to be a consistent contributor first and foremost.
“If we can get the consistency from him and our other older players,” Barnes said. “We like to see some separation with guys so we can really get into a rotation, that would be good. We have a confidence in our guys that we put out there and we like to see consistency there from them as well, but we really need our older players that have been through this before. Our younger guys are going to look to them in so many different areas, so we need them to be consistent.”
Fulkerson has a chance at history if he can contribute to a Tennessee win Saturday afternoon. With a win, Fulkerson would become the first Volunteer ever to win four games at Rupp in his career. It would be a nice accolade for Tennessee’s all-time games played leader but not one on that’s on the front of his mind.
That goal is making sure the Vols leave Lexington with a win.
“That would be really cool,” Fulkerson said. “But I would say, other than winning up there four times, it would just be good to focus on our next game, cause that’s the most important. It doesn’t really matter what happened the past three times, we still got to go up there and execute our game plan and play the best we can.”