Plavsic ruling underscores Tennessee’s frontcourt concerns
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s frontcourt concerns heading into the season are even greater than anticipated now that the NCAA has determined 7-foot Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic can’t play for the Volunteers this year.
Athletic director Phillip Fulmer announced Saturday that the NCAA refused to grant a waiver that would have enabled Plavsic to play for his new team immediately. Fulmer also said the NCAA had denied the school’s appeal, though Tennessee coach Rick Barnes indicated Monday the school is now going through a second appeal process.
“We’re shocked by it, to be quite frank,” Barnes said.
The Plavsic ruling reduces Tennessee’s options as it attempts to sort out its frontcourt rotation following the departures of All-America forward Grant Williams and 105-game starter Kyle Alexander. Tennessee begins its chase for a third straight NCAA Tournament berth Tuesday, when it hosts UNC Asheville.
Williams led the Southeastern Conference with 18.8 points per game last season and went to the Boston Celtics with the 22nd overall pick in the NBA draft. Alexander ended his college career with 185 career blocked shots to rank second in school history.
Tennessee also must replace Associated Press second-team All-SEC selection and second-round draft pick Admiral Schofield, who was listed as a guard last year but played forward for much of his college career.
The Vols have a talent-laden backcourt, featuring seniors Jordan Bowden and Lamonte’ Turner plus heralded freshman Josiah-Jordan James, but they lack proven forwards.
That’s why Tennessee needs 6-foot-9 junior John Fulkerson to have a breakthrough season. Fulkerson showed promise through his first 10 games as a freshman in 2016-17, but he took a redshirt that season after dislocating his right elbow and fracturing his right wrist.
Fulkerson hasn’t been as effective the last two years while working his way back from those injuries, but he had 11 points and 10 rebounds Wednesday in a 107-59 exhibition victory over Division II program Eastern New Mexico.
“It felt like forever since I’d been able to take a whole offseason and actually prepare for the game and not healing injuries or having to overcome stuff,” Fulkerson said after the game. “It feels great to finally be back to normal.”
Tennessee also has Yves Pons, an athletic 6-6 swingman who made 13 starts last season but played as many as 10 minutes in only one of the Vols’ final 15 games. Barnes said Monday that Pons can defend any of the five positions on the court.
Zach Kent is 6-11 but has appeared in just two games his first two years on campus and redshirted last season while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.
The Vols also added freshman forwards Olivier Nkamhoua and Drew Pember. Nkamhoua garnered plenty of preseason praise from coaches and teammates.
“You’ve got to go with what you have,” Barnes said. “You’ve got to find a way. It’s up to us as coaches to put guys in positions that they can be successful. We’re not afraid to size down and play with what would probably look like an all-guard lineup. We’re not afraid to do that either. We’ll do whatever we have to do, whatever the situation calls for.”
Tennessee’s lack of frontcourt depth likely won’t make much of a difference against UNC Asheville, a Big South Conference team coming off a 4-27 season. But it could prove critical as Tennessee’s schedule gets tougher.
The Vols will face Murray State, Washington, Florida State, No. 14 Memphis, Cincinnati, Wisconsin and either No. 23 Purdue or No. 25 VCU — all before beginning SEC competition.
Tennessee’s still holding out hope that it will win its appeal and that Plavsic will be available for some of those games.
“We’ll see,” Barnes said. “It’s not over yet.”
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