Around this time last year, Jarnell Stokes' migration across Tennessee — from Memphis to Knoxville — was celebrated as I-40 highway robbery. The Vols poached a five-star men's basketball recruit from the 901 city limits.
Stokes enrolled at Tennessee on Jan. 11, 2012. Nearly 12 months later, on Jan. 4, 2013 — this Friday — he'll face his hometown team. The Memphis Tigers, a program that recruited Stokes, but didn't have a scholarship available for him as a midyear enrollee last season, is coming to Thompson-Boling Arena for an 8 p.m. game (TV: ESPN2).
The next five days will see Stokes fall into the center of attention.
It's not just "Memphis Week," it's "Jarnell Stokes vs. Memphis Week" and the surrounding chatter will be the sophomore power forward's erratic play this season.
Six Vols earned more second-half minutes than Stokes in Saturday night's 51-47 win over Xavier. He finished the night with six points on 2-for-3 shooting, two personal fouls, two turnovers and three rebounds in 21 minutes, eight coming after halftime.
Asked after the game where Stokes fits in right now, UT coach Cuonzo Martin was terse, saying, "We played the guys we felt gave us the best chance of winning the ball game."
Stokes averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds last year when he became an instant star, earning All-SEC freshman honors in just half a season.
The sophomore campaign hasn't been as fruitful. He is averaging 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game through 11 games, but those numbers mask a certain reality.
Big games have drawn small numbers. In games against Oklahoma State, Georgetown, Virginia, Wichita State and Xavier, Stokes averaged 5.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24.6 minutes per game. He made 11 field goals total in those five games.
In UT's other six contests, Stokes posted 16.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. They came against Kennesaw State, UNC Asheville, Massachusetts, Oakland, Presbyterian and Western Carolina. Those games saw 81.8 percent of his made field goals this season.
Questions have been posed season-long about those wayward numbers. Martin has consistently said he wants Stokes to embrace what he is — a low-post bruiser — in order to become better at what he does. All along, he's battled collapsing defenses and inconsistent free-throw shooting (33-for-60).
Following a 12-point, nine-rebound outing against Western Carolina before the holiday break, Martin was asked if Stokes can establish consistency.
"We're 10 games into it now so he might not have a choice," Martin answered. "You have to play basketball. You have to make decisions and make plays. Since October, he hasn't practiced with Jeronne Maymon (knee injury). I think he's doing a good job. I think for him it's really just making the adjustments and getting a feel for how each game is played."
On Friday, Tennessee will be 12 games into it. And it's not just any game. The Vols (8-3) dropped a pair to Memphis (9-3) last year, including a highlight-filled, 18-point drubbing at FedExForum.
They remember the sting. Stokes, who turns 19 on Jan. 7, doesn't.
He wasn't on the roster yet.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn