Cuonzo Martin talks about freshman Jarnell Stokes
Game preview: Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt
Skylar McBee determined to become more multi-dimensional player
Skylar McBee: Getting heckled on the road
Don't bother trying to convince Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin that Vanderbilt's so-called "Memorial Magic" is anything more than a clever marketing campaign.
Martin's more concerned with his team's ability to execute than the funky layout at the 14,316-seat, 60-year-old gym that most notably features team benches at both ends of the court rather than alongside it.
The Vols (9-10, 1-3 SEC) look to find their first road victory of the season against the Commodores (14-5, 4-1) tonight (TV: 7 p.m., ESPNU).
Tennessee has enjoyed recent success playing at Vanderbilt, winning in Nashville two of the past three seasons.
But the gym's odd layout — in addition to the unique team bench placement, the floor is raised — has led to the Commodores enjoying a decided advantage, their 8-4 home record this season aside.
"It's a matter of completing a mission," said Martin, whose team is 0-5 in opponents' gyms. "I think our guys have gotten better. It's a matter of taking care of the ball, more than anything.
"I think we're defending."
The SEC statistics would indicate as much; since adding perimeter defensive stopper Josh Richardson
to the starting lineup prior to a 67-56 league-opening win over Florida, the Vols are considerably stingier.
While Vanderbilt leads the SEC in scoring defense in league games (59 points), UT runs a close second (60 points).
The Commodores also are tops in the league in field-goal percentage defense (.367), while the Vols rank third in that department (.390).
"The level of defense we're playing now, we'll put ourselves in position to win games," said UT junior Skylar McBee, whose two free throws with 19 seconds left helped lift the Vols to a 60-57 win over defending national champion and then-No. 13 Connecticut last Saturday. "As our understanding keeps getting better, the defense is only going to pick up."
Martin makes few allowances for lack of defensive execution, but he concedes mid-term freshman enrollee Jarnell Stokes is still finding his way.
"Since he has come aboard (Jan. 9 first practice, Jan. 14 first game), I think the communication on defense has gotten a lot better," Martin said. "The guys have done a really good job allowing him to grow ... they are constantly talking to him to let him know what's going on.
"The biggest key is for us to allow Jarnell to continue to grow. I think he's still 65-to-70 percent of what he can be as a player."
Stokes was honored on Monday as the SEC's Freshman of the Week after averaging 13.5 points, 10 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, one assist and one steal in games at Georgia last Wednesday and at home against UConn, his second and third appearances of the season.
While Stokes figures to have his hands full with Vanderbilt senior center Festus Ezeli, a 6-foot-11, 255-pound preseason first-team All-SEC pick, Martin said the Vols must contain junior John Jenkins.
The 6-4 Jenkins leads the SEC with 19.8 points per game, and as Martin explained, represents a moving target.
"The thing about him, I watched him first hand, he's ready to catch and shoot at all times," said Martin, who served as an assistant coach on the World University Games all-star team that Jenkins played for in China last summer. "His team does a great job getting him shots. He's always moving, and they are constantly looking for him."
Richardson, a 6-6 freshman, is most likely to draw the assignment of chasing Jenkins. When it's not Richardson, it will likely be 6-7 senior Cameron Tatum.
Vanderbilt, however, is hardly one-dimensional on the perimeter. Jeffery Taylor is a 6-7 senior forward who averages 17.1 points and is shooting a blazing 63.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc in league games.
The Commodores are making an SEC-high 10.6 threes in league games while UT is tops in the league in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.258).
Martin believes the Vols' offense will take care of itself at the other end of the court, provided the team can limit its turnovers.
As for how the Memorial Gymnasium setup will affect his ability to play call, Martin shrugged.
"It will be a little different," Martin said. "We don't call a lot of plays anyway, so I don't think it will hurt us from that standpoint."
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32