Unique Fulkerson-Pons journey nearing its end at Tennessee

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior forwards Yves Pons and John Fulkerson will play their final game together inside Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday afternoon, when the Volunteers host Florida.

For John Fulkerson, playing basketball at the University of Tennessee while growing up 90 minutes away in Kingsport was a constant dream.

The same couldn't be said for Yves Pons, who hails from Fuveau, France, and will never forget his college arrival.

"I had never seen anything like this before," Pons said this week on a Zoom call. "Everything was bigger. It was kind of like a TV show I had been watching. When I first stepped on the campus, it was amazing because it didn't feel real, and seeing the arena with 22,000 seats? I had only played in an arena with like 5,000, so it was just amazing to see."

Fulkerson and Pons will be playing inside Thompson-Boling Arena together one last time Sunday afternoon, when the Volunteers host Florida in the most meaningful Southeastern Conference matchup of the final weekend of the regular season. At stake for the winner is the final double-bye into next week's SEC tournament quarterfinals in Nashville, which would result in having to win three games instead of four to earn the league tourney title, something that has eluded the Vols since 1979.

Tennessee (16-7, 9-7 SEC) will also be trying to atone for its worst outing of the season, a 75-49 loss to the Gators (13-7, 9-6) in Gainesville on Jan. 19.

The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Pons is referring to Sunday as "my last game at TBA," but the 6-9, 215-pound Fulkerson isn't committing to that. Due to the extra year that has been allotted to student-athletes by the NCAA as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Fulkerson admits he will be facing a decision in the weeks ahead.

"I believe turning pro and coming back are my only two options," Fulkerson said. "I would not look into grad-transferring, because I think I am too loyal to the University of Tennessee, to Knoxville, to my state, to Coach (Rick) Barnes and to his staff, so if I am going to play college basketball next year, it's going to be at the University of Tennessee. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do, because there are a lot of factors that go into it.

"I'm going to focus on this team right now and finish the season strong, but after that, I'm going to talk to a few people, think about it and pray about it and weigh all the options."

Given that Fulkerson suffered a dislocated right elbow and fractured right wrist 10 games into his freshman season in 2016-17 and received a medical redshirt, a 2021-22 season would be his sixth in Knoxville.

Fulkerson and Pons were complementary pieces in 2018-19, when Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams spearheaded the Vols to a 31-6 mark that included a program-record four consecutive weeks at No. 1 in The Associated Press poll. Fulkerson and Pons combined for just 5.3 points a game two years ago, but they took the reins last season after Schofield and Williams departed, combining for 24.5 points per contest.

Pons was last season's SEC defensive player of the year, becoming the first Vol ever to achieve that honor, while Fulkerson averaged a team-high 13.7 points. Fulkerson has not been able to match that success this season, with his scoring average dipping to 9.3 points and to just 5.6 in the past seven games.

"I know our fans appreciate what John and Yves have given us over their time here," Barnes said. "I know if it were a typical year when we would have people in here, I think they would really be able to show that appreciation. Those guys have worked hard."

Last season's team slipped from 31-6 to 17-14, but Pons had a stellar 24-point performance as Tennessee nearly knocked off Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. In Tennessee's final victory last season, Fulkerson scored 27 as the Vols rallied from a 17-point deficit to stun Kentucky 81-73 on senior night in Rupp Arena.

The Vols were 10-1 and No. 6 in the country several weeks ago when they visited Florida, so perhaps a game against the Gators can reverse Tennessee's fortunes again, this time in an upward manner.

"We still have a long way to go," Pons said. "We have to focus on the next game and treat the postseason like it's a new season. We have to step it up and come together as a group and play our best basketball, because it's almost over."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.