Jimmy’s blog: Fulkerson says Covid had impact on him and team

By Jimmy Hyams

Tennessee forward John Fulkerson confirmed Tuesday morning what many people suspected for weeks if not months: He had Covid-19 this past season.

Fulkerson, who averaged 18.3 points in the last 10 games of the 2019-20 season and made first-team All-SEC, was not the same player his senior season. His scoring average dipped from 13.7 points to 9.5. His rebound average dropped from 5.9 to 5.5. His field-goal percentage decreased from 61.2% to 52.7%.

And his energy level wasn’t the same.

I asked Fulkerson during a zoom media conference this morning if he had Covid and if it impacted his play.

“I did,’’ he said. “I think if affected a lot of people.’’

Fulkerson noted it impacted fans in the stands. Usually raucous Thompson-Boling Arena (capacity 21,678) was reduced to less than 4,000 fans per home game. Fulkerson missed the rowdies.

“I love playing for the fans,’’ Fulkerson said, adding that he drew energy from spectators. “Them not being there, every team had to create its own energy.’’

Fulkerson, who announced recently he is returning for a sixth year at Tennessee, also said Covid impacted players’ stamina and conditioning.

“It affected this whole program,’’ Fulkerson said. “That’s what makes me so excited for next year, it will be more of a normal year.’’

We can only hope.

Fulkerson said he was encouraged by athletic director Danny White saying UT hopes to play home football games at full capacity at Neyland Stadium this fall.

Fulkerson hopes for the same thing at Thompson-Boling.

Fulkerson said Covid had another negative effect on the basketball squad: Team chemistry.

“I felt like last year Covid impacted us in terms of hanging out as a team and creating team chemistry and bonding experiences,’’ Fulkerson said, noting the team wasn’t able to have meals or watch movies or attend events together.

“That helps you just as much off the court as on the court,’’ he said.

Fulkerson said he already decided to return to UT before the Vols assembled the No. 2 recruiting class in the country – including two big men that can help Fulkerson inside.

“But when we got them,’’ he said, “it made me want to let you guys know and this team know I would be on the team and I would do whatever I could to help this team.’’

Fulkerson did admit he didn’t want his career to end with him sitting on the bench in the NCAA tournament and not remembering his last contest as a Vol – his memory jogged by the elbow of Florida’s Omar Payne during the SEC Tournament.

“I didn’t want it to end that way,’’ Fulkerson said. “I wanted to finish on my terms. The more I thought about it, the more I got excited to return.’’

Fulkerson said he thinks he can be sort of a player-coach to the newcomers, given this is his sixth year in coach Rick Barnes’ program.

Fulkerson thinks the Vols could be “special’’ this upcoming season and “accomplish something.’’

A new CBS Sports preseason poll jumped Tennessee from No. 25 to 15 when Fulkerson announced he was returning.

What did Fulkerson think of that?

“I thought we should have been ranked No. 1,’’ he joked.

Fulkerson said he doesn’t usually look at preseason rankings but he said the ratings jump was a “good compliment’’ to him.

Fulkerson said he has practiced with teammates for about four weeks, without wearing a mask.

Asked what he needs to do to be more consistent next season, Fulkerson said: “I think it starts in practice, working every day.’’

He said a lot of it is being prepared mentally to play your best.

Fulkerson isn’t just excited about basketball. He’s excited about his living arrangements for next season.

For the first time in eight years, he won’t have to live in a dorm. He did his last two years of high school and first five at UT.

“I’m excited about that,’’ Fulkerson said.

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