Tennessee entered the 2020-21 season ranked just out of the top 10 and picked to win the Southeastern Conference by the media.
The Vols jumped out the gates strong, going 6-0 in the pre conference slate, rising as high as No. 6 in the AP poll while looking like a Final Four contender. After a dominating SEC opening win at Missouri the Vols struggled with consistency, never winning more than three games in a row while going 5-4 in the second half of conference play.
Tennessee looked like it had a little bit of momentum entering the NCAA Tournament after a solid SEC Tournament, but flopped badly, getting bounced by 12th-seeded Oregon State in the first round.
“The whole thing has been a crazy year, and in some ways, I've said that I admire these guys for what they've had to go through,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “It's been a difficult year. I think it has been a tough year for the younger guys. I really do believe that.”
So what went wrong for Tennessee?
Let’s start with an offense that never really found its footing. Tennessee’s first two games of the season (Colorado and Cincinnati) would be the two most difficult of the preconference slate and the Vols’ offense struggled, scoring just 56 and 65 points, respectively.
Still, Tennessee won behind dominant defensive performances, the suspected and actual strength of the team, and the poor offense was overlooked due to it being the start of the season and that the Vols were coming off a COVID-19 pause.
Tennessee bounced back on offense, rolling through the rest of a week non conference slate, scoring 91 points per game. When SEC play came, so did the inconsistencies. Tennessee’s offense often went with how its outside shooting went.
Tennessee ranked eighth in the SEC, shooting 33% from three-point range. The Vols were inconsistent from deep and the Vols’ best shooters, Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey Jr, were okay from beyond the arc, with Vescovi shooting 37% and Bailey shooting 34%.
Tennessee’s offense finished ninth in the SEC, scoring 71.9 points per game.
A big part of Tennessee’s offensive issues and overall issues was the play of its veteran front court. John Fulkerson and Yves Pons both earned All SEC honors entering the season.
Pons was the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and made great improvements in his offensive game from his sophomore to junior season. Fulkerson was elite in the second half of SEC play in 2020, leading UT while scoring 19 points per game on his way to Second Team All-SEC honors.
However, both players regressed in their senior years and Tennessee struggled to get consistent inside scoring, leading to massive offensive issues when jump shots weren’t falling.
“Everyone expected (Fulkerson) and Yves Pons to pick right up from there, and everyone had their moments, but it just wasn't consistent enough,” Barnes said. “The fact that John had the type of year and the way it ended is really a major disappointment for all of us because, again, he's such a great kid and how hard he works at it and what he's meant to Tennessee. It's been a hard year. If I said anything otherwise, it wouldn't be honest. I wouldn't be honest with you.”
Pons drop in production wasn’t massive, going from 10.8 points per game on 49% shooting to 8.7 points per game on 47% shooting. The bigger issue was Pons’ three point shooting. While not a great shooter, Pons had turned himself into a solid shooter his junior year, making 30 triples at a 35% clip. That percentage dropped down to 27% this season as defenses largely stopped respecting him from the perimeter.
Still, Pons was never a great offensive player and was still great on defense, making him an effective starter. The surprise was the regression after making huge improvements from his sophomore to junior season.
Fulkerson on the other hand saw a massive drop from his production from his junior to senior season. The lefty went from scoring 13.7 points per game to 9.5 points per game, but that shift is even more dramatic in SEC play where Fulkerson went from averaging 15.1 to 8.6 points per game.
“No one's had a more frustrating year than John Fulkerson,” Barnes said. “I'll tell you, there's a lot of things that I feel bad about, but maybe none more than him because he had high expectations coming in and he struggled for the major part of the year, not because of any other thing than he — I mean, he was trying. We know that for us to be where we were, where people thought we'd be, it was based on him having three great weeks at the end of last year when he was playing lights out.”
Maybe Fulkerson, who was a role player his first three seasons in Knoxville, was never as good as his 2020 SEC stretch indicated, or maybe lingering minor injuries played a bigger impact than suspected, but the Kingsport, Tennessee native looked nothing like the player people were expecting coming into the season, and Tennessee was never fully able to recover on the offensive end.
Due to NCAA COVID-19 relief rules, Fulkerson could return to Knoxville for a sixth season, and after his season was ended early due to an elbow he received from Florida’s Omar Payne, it’s conceivable that the east Tennessee kid would give it one more go-around.
When Fulkerson or Pons struggled, were in foul trouble or even needed a break, Tennessee’s post depth did not deliver.
For the third straight season, Tennessee has not had reliable production from its big men on the bench.
In the past four years, Rick Barnes and his staff have brought in: Yves Pons, Zach Kent, Derrick Walker (2017), D.J. Burns (2018), Oliver Nkamhoua, Drew Pember, Uros Plavsic (2019), Corey Walker and E.J. Anosike (2020).
Burns, Walker and Kent have all transferred. Pember and Walker have been complete non contributors and Plavsic, Nkamhoua and Anosike have been inconsistent at best. Only Pons has turned into an effective and productive big man, not typically a good recipe when building a team and the most legitimate criticism there is of Barnes.
Walker and Anosike, the two big men brought in for the 2020-21 season, were massive disappointments. Walker was the highest rated big man Barnes has signed at UT, but didn’t play a second all season. Anosike, a grad transfer from Sacred Heart, struggled to adjust to life in the SEC, averaging 1.7 points and 1.9 rebounds a game.
Heading into next season, Pons will be gone and it’s possible that Fulkerson is too. The Vols’ two signees in the 2021 class are both guards, meaning Tennessee needs to hit the high school and transfer market hard for potential post contributors for next season.
On the current team, Barnes has to find a way to get reliable minutes from at least one, if not two, of Nkamhoua, Plavsic and Walker, something he wasn’t able to do this season.