No. 18 Vols expect to play their first SEC game at full strength

Tennessee Athletics photo / Sixth-year senior forward John Fulkerson had 24 points and 10 rebounds during Tennessee's 77-73 topping of Arizona on Dec. 22 but did not make last Wednesday's trip to Alabama following a positive COVID test.

Let's try this again.

Tennessee expects to be at full strength and Ole Miss simply wants to play Wednesday night when the No. 18 Volunteers welcome the Rebels to Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Vols (9-3) opened Southeastern Conference play with two notable absences during last Wednesday night's 73-68 loss at Alabama, as freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler and sixth-year forward John Fulkerson missed the trip following positive COVID tests. Tennessee announced earlier this week that every player has been cleared and is available for its home league opener and for Saturday's trip to No. 21 LSU.

"Our guys have done a good job," Vols coach Rick Barnes said in a news conference. "In the last couple days, they all went and got booster shots and all that. We just need to make sure our guys know when they walk out of this building that they make good decisions on where they go and things they do, because all that's going to in some way affect us if you put yourself in a position where you're exposed to a lot of people that you don't know.

"That's where we have to be really thinking about where we are in today's time and everything that is going on with COVID."

Chandler leads Tennessee in points (14.0) and assists (5.3) per contest, while Fulkerson leads the team in rebounds (6.6). The next appearance for Fulkerson will be his 143rd career game, which would break the school standard set by Wayne Chism from 2006-10.

Tennessee took a 63-57 lead in Tuscaloosa on a Uros Plavsic free throw with 6:02 remaining before going scoreless for nearly four minutes. The Vols grabbed a 68-67 edge on an Olivier Nkamhoua 3-pointer with 50 seconds left, but a Keon Ellis 3-pointer 10 seconds later put Alabama ahead to stay.

"This team has great chemistry," said Plavsic, who played at Hamilton Heights before beginning his college career at Arizona State. "These guys are so close to each other. They love each other, and I think missing two important guys like John and Kennedy was really big for us.

"At the same time, we knew we had to group up, get together and give our best to go up against a really good Alabama team."

That same night, Ole Miss got some unexpected free time. The Rebels (8-4) were scheduled to open conference play at home against Florida, but the Gators had COVID-related issues that resulted in a postponement.

Ole Miss, which has home victories over Dayton and Memphis, a home loss to Samford, and neutral-site setbacks against Boise State, Marquette and Western Kentucky, hasn't played since Dec. 21 and has yet to play a true road game.

The Rebels won last season's one and only meeting against the Vols 52-50 in Oxford. Tennessee entered that game ranked No. 11 and built a 23-15 lead within the first 10 minutes before scoring just 27 points the rest of the way.

"Kermit Davis is a terrific coach and does a really good job mixing his defenses," Barnes said. "From his man back to his 1-3-1 to his 2-3, he's always changing things up trying to keep you out of rhythm and keep you off balance. Last year down there they did the 1-3-1 and basically put three guys on the ball trying to trap.

"We didn't handle it very well and were not very good from the free-throw line, either. We were getting the ball places that we wanted, but we couldn't get anything done with it."

Odds and ends

Tennessee holds a 75-45 series advantage against Ole Miss, including a 43-12 mark in Knoxville. The Vols rank sixth nationally in turnover margin with a plus-6.6 per game and rank eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.64. Of the 12 games Tennessee has played to this point, only the Alabama, Arizona (a 77-73 win) and Texas Tech (a 57-52 overtime loss) contests were decided by single digits.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-7624.