It hasn’t been the senior season John Fulkerson envisioned.
The Kingsport native had a breakout year as a redshirt-junior, averaging 14.9 points per game in conference play on his way to earning All-SEC Second Team honors. Out of the shadow of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, Fulkerson shined carrying a limited Tennessee offense on his back for much of the season.
Fulkerson earned preseason First Team All SEC honors after his strong play as a junior and — mixed with new talent Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer — the Vols were picked to win the SEC.
Tennessee started the season strong, rising as high as No. 6 in the polls, but Fulkerson and the Vols’ play both dropped off in SEC with Fulkerson averaging just nine points per game and the Vols entering their regular season finale with a 9-6 conference record.
"I see a lot of things,” Fulkerson said of where he’s struggling. “I see double teams. I see me not being aggressive. I see me not making the right play. But that's why we watch it, and I've seen a lot of stuff and I've tried to improve all season. If I could go back and play like I did last year, you better believe that I would, and I would play even better. I've been trying my best to play like that, and I think that I've still got that in me. And so, you know, you just got to keep working every day to try to get better and get your swagger back."
Fulkerson’s struggles have really magnified in the last month, at the same time last year that he began to hit another gear and become one of the conference’s best players.
Despite averaging just 5.2 points and 5.1 rebounds in the past month, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes has continued to trust Fulkerson with a plethora of minutes, though the Vols have adjusted their offense to run less through Fulkerson.
"Well, I still believe in John Fulkerson, I do,” Barnes said. “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.”
His own and the team’s struggles weigh heavily on Fulkerson. The east Tennessee native grew up a diehard Vol fan who idolized former players like Chris Lofton and Wayne Chism.
“How tough do you think it's been on him?” Barnes asked rhetorically to the media. “Because you guys know him. You know how much he cares. 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.”
“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.”
Fulkerson still has the time for a late season turn around. College basketball is a tournament sport, meaning all his struggles can be forgotten with a couple strong weeks of play.
Despite being a redshirt senior, Fulkerson’s time on Rocky Top may not be over at the end of the season. To help alleviate concerns with COVID-19, the NCAA granted all players an extra season of eligibility, meaning the Kingsport native could return for a sixth season next year.
“I don't think he's thinking about that right now,” Barnes said. “I think John Fulkerson is so locked in because, like all of us, he wants to help us win. That's all he cares about.”
"Have I made a decision yet? Not yet,” Fulkerson said. “Am I thinking about returning? Of course. It's hard to pass up this institution, this basketball program, these coaches, my teammates, the university. And so absolutely I'm thinking about returning.”
Fulkerson and the Vols will look to get back on track ahead of the postseason when they host Florida to Thompson-Boling Arena Sunday. The senior day matchup is set to tip at noon ET.