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Tennessee Athletics photo / The Tennessee men's basketball team, minus freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler and sixth-year senior forward John Fulkerson, gathers before Wednesday night's 73-68 loss at Alabama.

Multiple positive COVID-19 tests on a college football roster this time of year can result in having to withdraw from a bowl game and the abrupt end of a season.

In college basketball, however, a positive test in late December is preferable to one in March. Tennessee freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler and sixth-year senior forward John Fulkerson missed Wednesday night's 73-68 defeat at Alabama, but their chances of missing another game may now be greatly reduced.

"Now it's going to be kind of like an advantage that at least we're not having to worry about not having them," Vols junior guard Santiago Vescovi said on a Zoom call. "I really don't know much about COVID and how it works, but I think they're building antibodies now since they have it, and it's going to be even harder for them to get it again."

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said after the Southeastern Conference opener that his players were scheduled to come back from Christmas this past Sunday but that Fulkerson did not feel well enough to return. He added that Chandler did not feel well Sunday but felt fine Monday.

Chandler leads the 14th-ranked Volunteers with 14.0 points and 5.3 assists per game, while Fulkerson averages 9.9 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds.

"We've got a good team," Barnes said, "and I told our guys that from the time we knew who we had to play with, we came in with the attitude we were going to win this game. I'm proud of them. We put ourselves in position."

The biggest change to Tennessee's roster Wednesday involved backup point guard Zakai Zeigler having to play 27 minutes, which was nearly 10 more than he had averaged this season. The 5-foot-10 freshman from Long Island didn't shoot overly well in an 11-point performance, missing a potential tying 3-pointer in the waning seconds, but he more than held his own against quality opposition in a difficult environment.

"Zakai is always ready to step up and play hard," junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. "He's always someone who's willing to take on a challenge against anybody, and that's what we love about him."

Said Vescovi: "He's super competitive, and he's never going to let us down."

The Vols don't play again until next Wednesday against visiting Ole Miss. While nobody is pulling for positive COVID-19 tests, with all the prominent Tennessee players vaccinated and breakthrough cases having happened, perhaps Barnes' team is better positioned for the remainder of the league schedule and whatever follows.

"Yeah," Nkamhoua said. "I mean, we don't want any COVID situation going on and losing any guys. I don't know all that's going on, but if this helps them not be taken out again, it will be great."

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

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