Mike Strange: Jarnell Stokes' return means high expectation for Cuonzo Martin, Vols

Mike Strange
Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes talks to the media during a press conference at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday after it was announced that he will be staying with the men’s basketball team for his junior year.
(ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Brimer

Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes talks to the media during a press conference at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday after it was announced that he will be staying with the men’s basketball team for his junior year. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.

Well, except for Yemi. And there still must be a departee to be named later because when the scholarship music stops, somebody’s not going to have a place to sit down.

But for all practical purposes, Tennessee’s basketball team has come through a perilous stretch intact.

Jarnell Stokes’ announcement Saturday that he will return rather than submit himself to the NBA draft is good news for a program that could use some good news.

A month ago, there was a bummer of an ending to the 2012-13 season to swallow. As Stokes said Saturday, “Nobody wants to end in the NIT two straight years.’’

That was old business, however. A promising 2013-14 season was already in jeopardy with the possibility — even likelihood — that either Stokes or All-SEC guard Jordan McRae, or both, were ready to go shoot hoops for a paycheck.

“If I’d made an emotional decision after the season, I would have went ahead and left,’’ Stokes confirmed.

Some wondered if point guard Trae Golden might be ready to move on as well. Or that Jeronne Maymon’s knee was damaged beyond repair even after missing an entire season.

Now we know McRae and Golden will be back to provide the perimeter punch. And that the formidable Stokes will be banging under the basket. Maymon, too.

Stokes said one of the factors in his decision to return was seeing how well Maymon was moving this week when he rejoined the open-gym action.

“I think that will relieve a lot of the double teams,’’ Stokes said.

Then there is the arrival of blue-chip guard Robert Hubbs. Not often have the Vols put two five-star recruits on the floor together.

Stokes is the other. And like every other prepster adorned with the coveted five stars, he never thought he’d be coming back for a third year as an amateur collegian.

“Being called a junior sounds so old,’’ he said.

Stokes, of course, isn’t as old as that sounds. He doesn’t turn in his teenager card until Jan. 7.

So the upshot is that Tennessee will have every opportunity to break a two-year NCAA tournament drought. The Vols should be one of the best teams in the SEC. They’ll certainly be the most experienced.

Coach Cuonzo Martin will not be hamstrung by either a young, rebuilt team (his first year) or the loss of his leader and top returning player (his second year). Expectations will be high and for good reason.

Hubbs should compensate for the lost 3-point shooting of Skylar McBee and add a new dimension to the perimeter. In signee Darius Thompson, the Vols have bona fide depth at point guard for a change.

Big men Kenny Hall and Yemi Makanjuola are gone. Maymon fills Hall’s stat line and then some. Martin has already replaced Makanjuola with “Pops” Ndiaye.

If Ndiaye had to compensate for a departed Stokes, that would be a problem. But filling Makanjuola’s niche seems like a natural, given their strikingly similar resumes.

With Stokes staying on board, the only speculation left is who gets bumped to trim the roster back to the allowed 13 scholarships.

Considering the uncertainty of the past month, that’s small potatoes. Tennessee hoops fans have every reason to look forward to the next tipoff.

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Comments » 13

johnlg00 writes:

Yep, no doubt about it. The Vols must be one of the top 20 or so teams in the country next year, and they will likely have to play like one against everybody. Oh, sure, any team can have an off night or run into an opponent putting together a career game. What the Vols almost CANNOT do is look to be at a loss against a team with comparable talent or worse. They must play like a team with a plan and an attitude.

The return of SO MUCH proven production undoubtedly ratchets up the pressure on Martin to rise as a coach, and rightly so. Everybody expects players to get better as they mature, and so should coaches. Martin is no longer a mid-major coach with built-in excuses for a team's shortcomings.

I have utmost respect for Martin as a person. I think he has done a good job at establishing a high moral tone in the program. We could all wish our sons grew up with personal values at the apparent level of Martin's.

But there should be no question that he needs to become a more flexible, imaginative, and intuitive coach. He needs to be the master of all the predictable situations that come up in games ALL THE TIME. He must accurately assess the players to put them in the best situations and combinations to win.

For example, the team needs to be able to get the big stop and the big score in crucial situations. It needs go-to plays by the go-to players--pressing, beating the press, forcing the action at opponents in foul trouble, valuing the ball and moving it with purpose, defending screening action, scoring off inbounds plays and defending against inbounds plays. The players generally need a better awareness of time-and-score situations, of what is and what is not the right thing to be TRYING to do whether it works or not.

I know that is a long list, Coach, but I know you are up to it. It's showtime; show EVERYBODY.

underthehill writes:

Expectations will be higher and rightly so..the parts are in place..better bench strength and if Hubbs is as good as reported ..and I think he will be..better outside scoring..Stokes is still the key with his rebounding potential..just gotta get a mean streak and learn how to use that awesome strength..as John says..time for Martin to show us some coaching..

decades_vol (Inactive) writes:

Agree with these posts. I do like Martin's defensive "no easy baskets" approach. It has paid some dividends. But I would also like to see the Vols push the ball up the floor much, much more on offense. It sure looked great against the 'Cats. Ideal game scenario: play good team D, force a contested shot, be Orange on the glass, get the ball out quickly for some favorable numbers (and some easier baskets), and let Maymon and Stokes trail to do the sanitation engineering. If defense gets back, go into the halfcourt, run the offense. Bottom line, I'd like to see Tenn try to run more, rather than settling so much for the halfcourt offense. I really like the Vol D, now I'd like to see a real streamlined Vol O.

alfrizzle097 writes:

Golden, Mcrae, Stokes, Maymon, and... Richardson?

Hubbs and Thompson look like they MIGHT contribute next year, but expecting freshmen to contribute too much can be iffy. It seems to be fair to say that Hubbs will make them forget about Mcbee on offense, but his defense will probably be problematic.

This can be a really good team, but Golden really needs to get his shot consistent. He'll be getting alot of inside-out passes when Stokes and Maymon draw the double team.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

Yeh! what they said.

standfast#211788 writes:

You say this is a good decision for UT. It is a great decision for Jarnell! As AWESOME as this kid is, he has a long, long way to go before he is an NBA caliber player. He needs to work hard on a 15' jumper and learn to shoot free throws. Sometimes he looks like he is in a daze. He will be a great player, but he is a work in progress.

seniordrill writes:

Cuonzo needs to have a zone defense in his defensive arsenal. It should be self evident after what some zones did to Tennessee. You can't play 100% man-to-man in today's college game! Teams adjust and prepare for it!

hikerdude writes:

Jarnell's return will not make much difference. The biggest problem we have is lack of defense at the guard position. Way, way too slow. It doesn't help that Counzo isn't a very good game coach. I'm guessing 20-10 just like last year and no trip to the NCAA tournament.

johnlg00 writes:

You know, I just don't get where people are coming from who seem to think nobody learns and nothing improves. What we have always gotten is what we will always get. The more things change, the more they remain the same. If this were so, why would we ever bother to send anybody to school? Why would there be music teachers, art instructors, and martial arts senseis?

Martin may not be a coaching prodigy but he is not stupid and he probably recognizes his and the team's shortcomings as well as we amateur outside observers do. He has to know also that, as Mike said, he really can't point to deficiencies in his personnel as reasons why the team can't succeed at a high level--if they fail to rock-n'-roll with THIS squad, it's on HIM, barring perhaps serious injuries to two or more "stars".

Even Golden's defense shouldn't be as much of a problem next year. For one thing, having both Stokes and Maymon, as well as big-body Ndiaye in spot duty, backing him up, opponents won't have as much room to maneuver even if they DO get by him. They can play much more aggressively on defense knowing the team's inside game won't be completely lacking if they get in foul trouble. Golden himself will not have to play as many minutes next year--Martin has already said this--with Thompson and possibly Landry to back him up. When he was healthy, Golden logged only the second-highest total of minutes behind McRae and was clearly gassed late in some games. This was in part due to setbacks in his conditioning because of his various injuries.

Now none of this means that they WILL be better next year, but THINGS CHANGE. Yeah, the Vols generally have been in a bad stretch lately, but the sky really isn't falling. The football team should be better next year--not championship-level better, but better than the last few years, and hopefully trending upward. The basketball team has every chance of making real noise next year. After that, who knows, but, heck, scientists tell us the entire universe will die the "heat death" eventually. Why borrow trouble? Why not enjoy the positives in life? If things don't work out, you will have plenty of company in your misery, so for now...LIGHTEN UP!

FeelVol writes:

in response to johnlg00:

You know, I just don't get where people are coming from who seem to think nobody learns and nothing improves. What we have always gotten is what we will always get. The more things change, the more they remain the same. If this were so, why would we ever bother to send anybody to school? Why would there be music teachers, art instructors, and martial arts senseis?

Martin may not be a coaching prodigy but he is not stupid and he probably recognizes his and the team's shortcomings as well as we amateur outside observers do. He has to know also that, as Mike said, he really can't point to deficiencies in his personnel as reasons why the team can't succeed at a high level--if they fail to rock-n'-roll with THIS squad, it's on HIM, barring perhaps serious injuries to two or more "stars".

Even Golden's defense shouldn't be as much of a problem next year. For one thing, having both Stokes and Maymon, as well as big-body Ndiaye in spot duty, backing him up, opponents won't have as much room to maneuver even if they DO get by him. They can play much more aggressively on defense knowing the team's inside game won't be completely lacking if they get in foul trouble. Golden himself will not have to play as many minutes next year--Martin has already said this--with Thompson and possibly Landry to back him up. When he was healthy, Golden logged only the second-highest total of minutes behind McRae and was clearly gassed late in some games. This was in part due to setbacks in his conditioning because of his various injuries.

Now none of this means that they WILL be better next year, but THINGS CHANGE. Yeah, the Vols generally have been in a bad stretch lately, but the sky really isn't falling. The football team should be better next year--not championship-level better, but better than the last few years, and hopefully trending upward. The basketball team has every chance of making real noise next year. After that, who knows, but, heck, scientists tell us the entire universe will die the "heat death" eventually. Why borrow trouble? Why not enjoy the positives in life? If things don't work out, you will have plenty of company in your misery, so for now...LIGHTEN UP!

As always John I do appreciate the positive attitude but some people will naturally be pessimistic.I'm so excited about next years team as you and believe they have a chance to be special.Go Vols!!!

jopad writes:

in response to standfast#211788:

You say this is a good decision for UT. It is a great decision for Jarnell! As AWESOME as this kid is, he has a long, long way to go before he is an NBA caliber player. He needs to work hard on a 15' jumper and learn to shoot free throws. Sometimes he looks like he is in a daze. He will be a great player, but he is a work in progress.

Standfast I can't argue with your post except to say, the pro's don't necesssarily draft younger players based on their current playing skills but rather on their potential. So let's give Jarnell some cedit for returning to help the Vols rather than taking the money to turn pro and probably sit on some teams bench for several seasons before playing a lot. I, like you, am glad he's back. Anybody got an idea on who will not be returning to the team in order to make room for the extra signee?

johnlg00 writes:

in response to FeelVol:

As always John I do appreciate the positive attitude but some people will naturally be pessimistic.I'm so excited about next years team as you and believe they have a chance to be special.Go Vols!!!

I can appreciate a degree of healthy skepticism. We have all seen any number of "sure things" turn out otherwise, in sports and in our own lives. Maybe it's just me, but I don't see the upside of LOOKING for things to go wrong. Maybe some people think it makes them superior to the credulous masses to always stand back with folded arms and a sneer on their faces when everybody else is expressing enthusiasm for things none of us after all have any real control over. OK, whatever works, different strokes for different folks, and all that. But don't blindly assume that just because things haven't worked out the way we prefer before that they NEVER will. Thanks for your kind words. I think we are both in pretty good company!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to jopad:

Standfast I can't argue with your post except to say, the pro's don't necesssarily draft younger players based on their current playing skills but rather on their potential. So let's give Jarnell some cedit for returning to help the Vols rather than taking the money to turn pro and probably sit on some teams bench for several seasons before playing a lot. I, like you, am glad he's back. Anybody got an idea on who will not be returning to the team in order to make room for the extra signee?

Good post; agree with all. As for your last question, that's one we're all wondering about. I don't expect to hear anything definitive until the semester is over. Several people have put forth their own candidates, but all of us would only be guessing at this point.

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