When you’re putting together dream scenarios for the Vols to run through Nashville and win the SEC Tournament, a few things might wake you from sleep. Tennessee hasn’t won four games in a row since starting the season 5-0. If you make it through Thursday, the league champion awaits on Friday (though that wasn’t a problem last week). And a young, thrown-together lineup will generally lack the consistency it takes to pull off this kind of feat, one the Vols haven’t accomplished since 1979.
But perhaps more than anything, how long this Tennessee team lasts is dependent on its stamina. These Vols aren’t just hastily formed, they’re operating at just about the only way they have a chance to succeed: playing their starters an insane amount of minutes.
It feels like John Fulkerson is the key piece of the puzzle here, but statistically that’s not true. Granted, he played 39 minutes in the win at Rupp. But Fulkerson, through some combination of fatigue and foul trouble, plays only 30.1 minutes per game.
The word “only”, as you’ll see, is relative. Let’s start with Jordan Bowden.
The Vol senior averages 34.4 minutes per game, well north of the 27.8 he put in last season. And it’s well north of anyone to play at Tennessee in the last 15 years (Pearl, Cuonzo, Tyndall, and Barnes) other than Josh Richardson:
(data via Sports-Reference)
One thing you’ll notice about that list: none of Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament teams featured anyone playing 33 minutes or more. Of the nine Vol squads to make the dance in these last 15 years, five saw the guy with the most minutes play less than 30 per game. The bench isn’t just about how much production they give you when they’re on the floor. It’s about their ability to have your best players at their best in the last four minutes.
What Bowden is doing gets little press; it’s easy to take a senior who played 22.8 minutes as a freshman for granted. But he’s been doing this all year, even before Lamonte Turner went out (39 minutes vs Washington, 37 at Cincinnati). When Josh Richardson did it in 2015, it became one of the most remarkable things about that season by its end. But this team came so close to doing something truly remarkable in the regular season, Bowden’s individual stamina has gone largely unnoticed.
And it’s not just him. There’s Yves Pons at fourth on the leaderboard at 33.9 minutes per game. When Fulkerson gets a blow, sometimes it’s Pons who gives it to him. Those nearly 34 minutes a night are the most at Tennessee for a non-guard since Ron Slay played 34.2 in his SEC Player of the Year campaign in 2003. Pons is the SEC shot blocking champion at 2.4 per game, joining Nick Richards (2.1) as the only players to average more than two per game.
Also, consider Santiago Vescovi, who isn’t just remarkable for playing and playing well this season. Vescovi’s 30.3 minutes per game are the most for a Tennessee freshman since C.J. Watson played an insane 35.8 minutes on that same 2003 squad with Ron Slay, another bubble casualty with those two and Jon Higgins all playing more than 33 minutes per game. And Josiah James is right behind Vescovi at 29.9 minutes per game.
Here’s what minutes for elite freshmen typically look like at Tennessee:
Good news is coming, but not this week. Jordan Bowden’s 34.4 minutes will have to be replaced, but the Vols have Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer, and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey to carry that load. Corey Walker and a more fully-formed Uros Plavsic can make sure Fulkerson and Pons are at their very best late in the action.
Right now the Vols are running a glorified seven-man rotation: the starters all play 30+ minutes, Jalen Johnson and Davonte Gaines contribute 10-15 minutes off the bench depending on whether you need more from your offense or defense, and maybe you get a brief spell for your posts from Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua. If the Vols do make the NIT, I’ll be curious to see if Barnes throws those two in the fire more often just to see what he’s got.
But next year, there should be a legitimate battle for playing time. If you assume Vescovi, James, Pons, and Fulkerson are all in the mix, plus your three stud recruits, plus Victor Bailey, that’s eight before we even get to this year’s bench of Plavsic, Nkamhoua, Gaines, Johnson, and Pember. Get the kind of growth we’ve come to expect from this coaching staff and the kind of spark you expect from bringing in the nation’s number five class, and the problem will be figuring out who your best five are instead of worrying about if they’re your only five.
Given all that, what the Vols have done this season deserves a tip of the cap no matter where it goes from here. I’m hopeful it’ll go as long as it can in Nashville. But given these minutes, any run would be remarkable. And in a season full of surprises, who knows? Maybe they’ve got one left up their tired sleeves.