Cuonzo Marton on his ties to UConn and Coach Calhoun
It turns out Tennessee mid-term enrollee Jarnell Stokes is a fast learner on the basketball court as well as off it.
The 6-foot-8, 270-pound freshman power forward is expected to make the first start of his brief college career against defending national champion Connecticut today (TV: WVLT, 4 p.m.) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Bottom line, you're trying to win ball games,'' UT coach Cuonzo Martin said before Friday's practice. "The only way he's going to get better is playing.''
Stokes has been on an accelerated pace for quite some time, graduating early from Memphis Southwind High School in large part because of the honors class curriculum he took his four years of high school and an online course in English that helped him fulfill his requirements.
The Huskies were among Stokes' final choices before he announced he would sign with UT in December.
Stokes' first practice with the Vols was on Jan. 9, and he didn't see his first action until last Saturday's game against No. 2 Kentucky when he scored nine points on 4-of-5 shooting and pulled down four rebounds in 17 minutes of a 65-62 loss.
On Wednesday, Stokes' role expanded off the bench, and he came through with 11 points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes during Georgia's 57-53 overtime win in Athens, Ga.
Stokes' performance was impressive enough for Martin to put an emphasis on putting him and junior power forward Jeronne Maymon on the same team during practice the past two days.
"I talk to him and help him when I can, but he already knows a lot out there,'' said the 6-7, 265-pound Maymon. "I think practicing together has helped us.''
The Vols figure to need all the help they can get in the paint against coach Jim Calhoun's physical Big East team.
"They are very similar to Kentucky, but their big guys are more physical around the rim, with more shot blockers and runners and jumpers,'' Martin said. "Their big guys feed off post production, penetrating and pitching and offensive rebounds.''
As much attention as UT needs to pay to 6-10, 270-pound freshman Andre Drummond and 6-9, 240-pound Alex Oriakhi, the Vols also must be mindful of guards Shabazz Napier (14.6 points, 6.3 assists per game) and Jeremy Lamb (17.7 points).
UT point guard Trae Golden is expected to be up to speed after practicing Thursday and Friday. Golden missed Tuesday's practice with a mild ankle injury and appeared to be a step slow against Georgia.
Golden made it clear he's ready to help the Vols get back on course after losing their past two games.
"In basketball, you have to put the tough things behind you,'' said Golden, who missed a potential game-winning shot in regulation against the Bulldogs. "This is a great opportunity to play against the defending national champions, and we've got to make sure we're ready.''
Maymon, who didn't play in the Vols' 72-61 loss to UConn in Hartford last season, also is chomping at the bit for UT to find redemption after a disappointing loss.
"I was sitting there on the bench during that game last year wondering if I could help, but I didn't have the confidence I do now, and I didn't have the right mindset,'' Maymon said. "I probably would have been a waste of space.''
"We'll come out here with aggression and play hard,'' Maymon said. "They have the persona of being physical ... but you never know until you get on the court.''
'We Back Pat' Night: In a 24-second video on UTsports.com, Martin requested the support of the Tennessee student body to come out "rowdy, fueled up and ready to go" for the UConn game.
"We also support the 'We Back Pat' Night," said Martin, referring to Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt. "So come out and join the fun and excitement. Go Vols."
The Tennessee Athletic Department asks for fans to wear the "We Back Pat" shirt to the game to show continued support for Summitt, who's battling early onset dementia. Shirts can be purchased at various stores on campus, as well as participating Food City and Walgreens stores.
Shirts cost $10, and $4.25 of each sale goes toward Alzheimer's research.
Shirts for UConn fans are also being sold. They read "I bleed Blue and White, but I wear purple to back Pat." Purple is the signature color of Alzheimer's charities.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32