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Position Preview: Centers

Oct 31, 2019

Rick Barnes earned national respect with his Vols over the last two seasons for the way that he developed lower-rated high school players into elite NCAA players. This season, Barnes is going to have to show his coaching acumen again, as the Vols are forced to replace Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, and Kyle Alexander. Tennessee also suffered some attrition in terms of transfers as DJ Burns left for Winthrop and Derrick Walker left for Nebraska. While the Vols return some experienced stars in the backcourt, the transfers and NBA departures have left Tennessee thin and inexperienced in the frontcourt. For a team that so often was most effective when running through the post last season, how Barnes develops talent to step up and fill the void will be of paramount importance. To begin this preview of the position groups, the players that will be called upon to play center are up first.

John Fulkerson 6’9” 212 lbs. Redshirt Junior

John Fulkerson has been a solid contributor off the bench for the Vols since arriving in Knoxville. Last season, Fulkerson was an energy player for the Big Orange that showed skill in grabbing rebounds, playing Scrappy defense, and getting some buckets on put backs. While that was a nice contribution off the bench, Barnes and the Vols will need significantly more out of Fulkerson this season. He is the most experienced big man that the Vols have on the roster, especially in terms of true post play. The Vols are relying on a far more guard-heavy lineup this season, and they are going to play smaller and faster than they have in the past. That means Fulkerson will be called on to run the floor at a faster pace than he has in the past, but that he must win fights for rebounds on both ends of the floor. He will often be the tallest player on the court for the Vols, and he must grab critical rebounds. Tennessee still has an excellent passing point guard in Lamonte Turner, and Barnes wants to utilize that to feed his big men down low, which means Fulkerson is going to be asked to show he can be a low post scorer every night. Lost in the passing of time was just how solid an offensive player Fulkerson was as a freshman before suffering a catastrophic injury. Fulkerson was the leading scorer for the Vols when he was hurt, but the injury set him back dramatically. Against Eastern New Mexico, Fulkerson tossed in a quick six points, ending with 11 points and 10 rebounds. While that isn’t the production the Vols got last season from the position, regular performances of that level should propel these Vols to success.

Yves Pons 6’6” 215 lbs. Junior

First, there is absolutely no way that what the University is listing Pons in terms of height or weight is correct. Pons looks to be standing closer to 6’8” and he is by far the most well-built player on the team. Pons has been a physical phenom since he arrived on campus, but the way he has developed his body this offseason is stunning. One of the reasons that Barnes has emphasized the physical development of his Junior Frenchman is his expanded role for the Vols. Pons will play significant minutes in his role as a three out on the wing for Tennessee, as he has his first two years on campus. However, Pons went from a wing to one of the tallest players on Tennessee’s roster in one offseason. These Vols are desperate for size in the post, and with his long wingspan, incredible leaping ability, and thicker, stronger frame, Pons will not only see time at power forward for the Vols but at center as well. Against Eastern New Mexico the Vols ran a small lineup that put Turner, James, Bowden, Nkamhoua, and Pons on the floor from 1 to 5, and it was effective. If the Vols look to run a team out of the gym, Pons makes a lethal option on the offensive end as a center. First, he can run with or lead a break with anyone on the team. Second, his ability to end a break with a spectacular finish is well known and was demonstrated again against the Greyhounds. That same leaping ability and his increased strength make him a much better rebounder on both ends of the floor. He also hit a few three-pointers against the Greyhounds, demonstrating a new facet to his game, forcing teams to move a shot-blocker away from the rim to defend him. On defense, Pons is a ferocious on-ball defender. His long arms, quick hands, persistent pressure, and added muscle mass means he can defend much taller centers if he is called upon to do so. It is unlikely Pons will ever start at center this season for the Vols, but he will certainly play minutes at the 5 in certain lineups the Vols are going to utilize. His incredible athletic gifts and his attitude, especially to playing great defense, will make those lineups viable tools for Barnes.

Zach Kent 6’11” 235 lbs. Redshirt Sophomore

Kent was one of the surprises in the exhibition against Eastern New Mexico. He was given significant minutes, especially in the first half, and was allowed to play with many of the starters. Kent is the closest player to a true center that the Vols are sure to have available on the roster. Like Fulkerson, Kent suffered a serious injury and missed all of last season. Against the Greyhounds, it was evident the Sophomore big man was shaking off some rust, but he looked solid for the Vols. Kent is unlikely to start at center for the Vols, but as things stand, it is very likely he will be the first big man off the bench if the starters need some rest or get into foul trouble. Kent showed that he can be a good, tough rebounder and an interior presence on the defensive block. Really, for the makeup of this team, that is exactly what Barnes needs from him, rebounding, defense, and the occasional lay up while the starters get a break. How Kent develops will be interesting to watch this season. If he can show a solid offensive game against good opponents, he can get more minutes as well as help to push these Vols from good to great.

Uros Plavsic 7’1” 240 lbs. Redshirt Freshman

Here is the single most intriguing storyline for the Vols as the season draws closer. Plavsic transferred to Tennessee from Arizona State in the off-season. He arrived in Knoxville after the coach that recruited him left as an assistant with the Sun Devils. Plavsic also played his high school ball at Hamilton Heights in Chattanooga, so the move to Knoxville also brought him back to East Tennessee. Tennessee opens the regular season in less than a week against UNC Asheville, and the Vols are still awaiting the NCAA ruling on Plavsic. If the Vols can get Plavsic granted immediate eligibility, the big freshman changes the entire complexion of the team. Plavsic gives Tennessee a true center and a seven-footer that moves extremely well. While he will never be confused with Yves Pons running a break, Plavsic can absolutely run the floor, even with Tennessee’s experienced and dynamic guards. He is an offensive asset in transition, but in the half-court, is where he changes the face of this Vols squad. Plavsic gives Barnes and Turner a true center in the middle of the floor on offense. He has a solid mid-range shot, can finish with touch near the rim, and can flush the ball home off a nice spin move. Plavsic gives Tennessee an excellent rebounder that has size most SEC teams will even struggle to contend with. When he is on defense, Plavsic forces teams to alter shots because of his size and presence alone. His height and length will help him grab rebounds and limit second-chance opportunities for opponents. He is also a shot blocker and rim protector, something Tennessee will be looking for after Kyle Alexander’s graduation. Plavsic is an athletic center that helps the Vols on both ends of the floor if he is available to them. He will also help Tennessee by allowing players like Fulkerson and Pons to play more natural positions at the four, rather than needing to log heavy minutes at the five, and letting Kent work as his replacement when the Vols need a backup center. Plavsic being eligible raises the ceiling for Tennessee, and if he can play immediately, it makes Tennessee a far tougher team to deal with.

Rick Barnes is going to have to reinvent the identity of his Volunteers this season after losing so many key players. This is a much younger, smaller, faster team than what he has had the last few seasons. It is also a team that could have a much bigger center than he has ever had if Plavsic is eligible. Barnes showed in the exhibition against Eastern New Mexico that while this team is going to run more, he still wants to have a focus on attacking the basket from the low post. Just how much he is able to do that will depend on how much he can get out of the diverse group of players he will ask to play center this season.

Brandon Martin

Brandon Martin

Senior Recruiting Analyst

Brandon Martin is from the mountains of southeast Tennessee, a proud alumnus of ETSU, and has ended up living in Nashville after stints in Memphis and the Tri-Cities.

Football season takes him all over the Southeast, covering games in the Nashville-Middle Tennessee region, East Tennessee, Memphis-West Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia. He covers all things UT with a focus on Recruiting and Tennessee Basketball. If you see him at a game, please, come say hello.

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