Tennessee will never know whether the effective John Fulkerson or the struggling John Fulkerson would have showed up Friday afternoon as the Midwest Region's fifth-seeded Volunteers faced 12th-seeded Oregon State in an NCAA tournament first-round game in Indianapolis.
Either option, however, would have been preferable to having no Fulkerson at all.
With the 6-foot-9, 215-pound senior forward still sidelined by the concussion and facial fracture sustained by an intentional elbow in last week's Southeastern Conference tournament, the Vols were manhandled early and often inside during a 70-56 loss to the Beavers that brought a sudden and shocking end to Tennessee's season. The Vols raced out to a 10-1 record and climbed as high as No. 6 in The Associated Press poll and No. 3 in the NET rankings, but an 8-8 mark over their final 16 games left quite the unfulfilled feeling.
That Tennessee's 18-9 record reflects 27 total games is no small accomplishment in this coronavirus-altered season, but sixth-year coach Rick Barnes, who tested positive for COVID-19 before his team's first tipoff, admitted early Friday evening that this was among the toughest winters of his career.
"It's been a crazy year, and I admire these guys for what they've had to go through," Barnes said. "It's been a tough year for the younger guys, but no one has had a more frustrating year than John Fulkerson. There are a lot of things I'm feeling bad about right now, but none more than him, because he had high expectations coming in, and he struggled for the major part of the year.
"Where people thought we would be was based on him having three great weeks at the end of last season, when he was playing lights out. Everyone had their moments, but it just wasn't consistent enough, and the way John's season ended was a major disappointment for all of us. It's been a hard year, and if I said anything otherwise, it wouldn't be honest."
Tennessee's regular season included one wall-to-wall stinker — the 75-49 loss at Florida on Jan. 19 — and Friday represented its next most inept outing but obviously with steeper consequences.
Entering Friday, at least one 12 seed had upset a 5 seed in 30 of the past 35 NCAA tournaments, and the Vols offered no resistance to that trend as Oregon State easily advanced on March's biggest sports stage for the first time since 1982. An Ethan Thompson basket at the 11:05 mark of the first half gave the Pac-12 tournament champions their first double-digit lead at 18-7, and a Roman Silva layup with 1:06 before halftime extended the blowout to 33-14.
"We came out and didn't execute anything we had been practicing the last couple weeks," Vols sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James said. "We were flustered, and it probably looked like we were scared. As the game went on, the jitters got out, but we didn't give ourselves the chance to win, and that's what hurts the most."
Tennessee scored the last five points of the half with a Victor Bailey 3-pointer and a Keon Johnson layup at the buzzer to make it 33-19, with the 19 points marking the worst first-half output of the season for the Vols. They were just 2-of-13 on 3-point attempts during the first 20 minutes and committed two shot-clock violations coming out of timeouts, and any hopes that sliver of momentum could provide were dashed by Zach Reichle, who hit a pair of 3-pointers that enabled the Beavers to reclaim a 19-point advantage at 45-26.
A Thompson 3-pointer with 15:17 remaining in the game gave Oregon State its first 20-point lead at 47-27. The Beavers led by 20 again at 62-42, but 3-pointers by Santiago Vescovi and Johnson keyed an 8-0 run that pulled the Vols within 62-50.
Tennessee never made it a single-digit contest.
"We had no inside game," Barnes said. "They were packed in there daring us to make 3s, and we had some looks, but they didn't go down. It's hard to play this game when the ball is not going in and you don't have an inside presence."
Silva, Oregon State's 7-1 senior center, feasted in Fulkerson's absence by going 8-of-8 from the floor and leading all scorers with 16 points. Former Hamilton Heights standout Uros Plavsic made his first start of the season for the Vols, but the 7-footer could not counter Silva, scoring one point in 10 minutes.
Oregon State's three starting guards — Jarod Lucas, Reichle and Thompson — combined on 8-of-17 shooting from 3-point range, dwarfing Tennessee's 5-of-26 performance as a team. Johnson and fellow freshman Jaden Springer led the Vols with 14 and 12 points, respectively, with Barnes describing the pair as "skittish."
The Vols began this season looking to surpass or at least match the 2018-19 team that reached the Sweet 16, but the quick exit left the program with a 22-23 all-time record in NCAA play.
"It's very disappointing, but from another perspective, I'm grateful to be here," James said. "This year has been long, and it has been hard — not only for us but for the world. To be able to play the game that I love has me grateful, but it is very frustrating to go out like this.
"I know the team that we had and the firepower we had."