By Mark Nagi

Over the past few seasons of Tennessee men’s basketball, John Fulkerson has been one of the Vols most popular and effective players.

The 6’9” forward from Kingsport has averaged 6.6 points and 3.9 assists per game in his five years in the program. In 2019-2020, Fulkerson was at his best, with 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds a contest. And while he took a bit of a step back in 2020-2021, Tennessee got a big boost when Fulkerson announced that he would return to UT for a sixth and final season.

“There was a lot that was going through my head and really I was just weighing out my options to see what the best decision was for me and just making sure that I was going to make the right decision for myself,” Fulkerson recently told reporters.

“After a lot of prayer and consideration and talking with my parents, talking with some mentors and people I really look up to, I decided to come back. It wasn’t really all about me personally, but really for me to help this team that we’re going to have next year, and to mentor some of the guys coming in. I really think that this team is going to be special and we can really accomplish something.”

It’s no secret that there has been a lot of turnover on that roster. Fulkerson sees himself playing a role in that transition. “I’ve played for coach (Rick) Barnes for a while now, and I think that I know what he’s wanting and I know his system and I think that it’s great to have a voice out there that can help the guys,” said Fulkerson.

One reason why Fulkerson is coming back is that he didn’t want to leave under some rough circumstances. He was knocked out of the SEC tournament after taking two separate hits to the head in the victory over Florida.

Fulkerson’s 2020-2021 season was slumping in part because he was diagnosed with COVID-19 during the campaign. “I think that COVID affected a lot more than my play,” he said. “COVID affected a lot of people and a lot of different programs, and I think it can go as far as having the fans in the arenas affected a lot of different programs, people, and players… Not only for me, but for every team out there, COVID affected them, whether they had it or not personally as far as their stamina, their conditioning, the energy, and things like that. I think all around it affected this whole program and that’s what makes me so excited for next year is it to be more of a normal year.”

The fact that Fulkerson is returning for a sixth season is quite rare. The NCAA allowed those student-athletes affected by the pandemic to get that extra year of eligibility if they wanted it.

“Whenever this rule for eligibility came out about staying one more year and this year not counting, I was actually quarantined, and coach Barnes called me with one of our assistants and asked me if I was coming back. I said, ‘no I’ve been here long enough, and this is going to be a great year.’ I did not think for a single second that I would come back or that I was going to return, but then at the end of the season with all the factors that played in, I guess that was the complete change of events.”

For now, Fulkerson can center his attention on showing that last season wasn’t the norm, as he attempts to return to the Fulky fans have come to love.

“I think that it starts in practice and my everyday work,” said Fulkerson. “I think a lot of it is on the mental side and just getting mentally prepared. That you’ve got to play your best and work your hardest every single day because teams are going to continually get better. Individuals are continually going to get better. I think that you have to approach it to where you tell yourself, you have to continue to get better.”