KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This hasn’t been the type of season that Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes expected.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin called Stokes an “elite” player before the season, but the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward has struggled to live up to that description. Stokes has encountered double-teams in the absence of teammate Jeronne Maymon, a former second-team all-Southeastern Conference forward redshirting this season with an injured left knee. He has been unable to avoid foul trouble.
“I definitely have been frustrated this season,” Stokes said. “This has been one of the most frustrating seasons, the way we’ve lost, getting two fouls early in a game and having to sit out an entire half. It’s just frustrating. Double-teams and sometimes triple-teams, I haven’t quite gotten used to it. I just didn’t anticipate that coming into the season. I expected to get a double-double every game.”
Perhaps Stokes’ breakthrough performance came Saturday.
Stokes scored 15 points, pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds and made a critical defensive stand in the closing seconds of a 54-53 victory over Alabama. That performance improved his season averages to 11.1 points and 8.1 rebounds, slightly above his 2011-12 totals of 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
He had four fewer rebounds than Alabama’s entire roster Saturday and didn’t seem frustrated at all after carrying the Vols to victory. Stokes will try to build on that momentum Tuesday when Tennessee (10-8, 2-4 SEC) hosts Vanderbilt (8-10, 2-4).
Stokes’ big game Saturday certainly caught the attention of Vanderbilt, which has the SEC’s worst rebound margin. Vanderbilt guard Dai-Jon Parker said Stokes’ rebounding totals against Alabama seemed like “Karl Malone numbers.”
“If he’s not the strongest guy in the league, he’s certainly one of them and one of the strongest guys in the country,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “And he knows how to use it. He knows how to position himself and use his body, and he’s smart with it. Not only is he big and strong and athletic, he’s intelligent in how he uses his strength. Anyway, it’s a challenge to box him out for anyone, not just for us. He’s a challenge for everybody.”
Stokes attributed his output in part to a shift in attitude.
He said basketball hadn’t been as much fun for him as usual this season. That changed against Alabama.
“I think one of the hardest things for a college athlete is probably just to have fun while they’re playing,” Stokes said. “Don’t take everything as a business. It’s not always (about) trying to please (the) coach. Just go out there and have fun. I think that game, I just had fun, and I think that was the result. Everything went my way.”
Not much had gone Stokes’ way before Saturday.
Stokes hardly ever encountered double-teams his freshman year, but teams have routinely guarded him that way this season without Maymon around. Stokes has fouled out of four games. After Stokes fouled out of a 62-56 loss at Mississippi on Thursday, Martin contacted the SEC about the way Stokes was being officiated.
Martin was quick to point out plenty of other reasons Tennessee lost that game. Mississippi’s Marshall Henderson scored 28 points. The Vols committed 21 turnovers and missed free throws down the stretch. But he also wanted to make sure officials weren’t using Stokes’ enormous size against him.
“With such a physical presence, just because he gets hit on the leg and you can’t move him, it’s still a foul,” Martin said. “He’s a physical guy. Whether he’s 5-5 or 6-10, a foul’s a foul.”
Even when fouls are called against Tennessee opponents, Stokes hasn’t always made them pay. Stokes is making just 52.6 percent of his free throws, which added to his frustrations.
Stokes put all that turmoil behind him Saturday. He was aggressive on the boards and assertive with the ball in his hands. He only had two fouls called against him.
If he can build on that performance, Stokes could lead Tennessee on a second-half surge. Tennessee has gone 7-0 in Stokes’ career when he makes at least six baskets. Although junior guard Jordan McRae is Tennessee’s leading scorer, he considers Stokes the focal point of the offense.
“I know what the numbers say, but you can look at Jarnell and if you didn’t know anything about this team, you could look at our team and say Jarnell was probably one of the best players on the team,” McRae said. “The fact that he demands a double-team and so much attention is drawn to him, it helps everybody else.
“You can only imagine what he would do if he wasn’t being doubled every night.”