Cuonzo Martin on the Vols' road win
Cuonzo Martin credits Jarnell Stokes.
Jarnell Stokes credits Cuonzo Martin.
Either or, Tennessee men's basketball has found the Stokes it's been searching for.
Following a 62-56 loss at Ole Miss six games ago, Martin was left incensed. Stokes, in his estimation, was being handicapped on both ends of the floor by SEC officials. The loss to the Rebels pushed Martin past the breaking point.
A phone call was made to Gerald Boudreaux, the SEC's coordinator of men's basketball officials. Alluding to Stokes' 6-foot-8, 270-pound frame, Martin told Boudreaux, "He's big, allow him to be big."
That call now stands as the preface to the best five-game stretch in Stokes' 39-game collegiate career. He hasn't had a game without a double-double since.
"It's been totally different," Stokes said Sunday, standing outside the UT locker room, fresh off a 20-point, 10-rebound outing in the Vols' 66-61 win at South Carolina.
Stokes claims everything has changed since Martin took up his cause.
Martin, meanwhile, cites Stokes' willingness to wear his metaphorical "hardhat" to "work" every day.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Martin piped up his voice for Stokes, and Stokes responded by stepping up his game. The sophomore power forward is averaging 17.6 points, 68.9 percent shooting and 12 rebounds during UT's last five outings.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has surely noticed the transformation. Four games ago, Stokes notched 19 points, 11 rebounds in a 58-57 Tennessee win over the Commodores. He's been just as impressive in the three games since.
"He's playing like a first-round draft pick right now," said Stallings, whose Commodores (9-13, 3-7 SEC) will play host to Tennessee (12-10, 4-6) Wednesday (TV: MyVLT, 8 p.m.) in Nashville, "He's playing like an absolute stud."
At this time last year, after topping out at a season-high average of 12.0 points per game in mid-January, Stokes was down to 8.3 points per game. This season, he's going in the right direction. After averaging just 10.7 points per game through mid-January, he's now at 12.4 and rising.
Similar numbers exist in rebounds, minutes per game and field-goal percentage.
Sophomore slump? More like a sophomore surge.
It's all started on the glass.
On the season, Stokes has accounted for 29.7 percent of the Vols' offensive rebounds and 20.7 percent of defensive rebounds. In the last five games? He's up to 49.1 percent of their offensive boards and 29.7 percent of the defensive.
Prior to the recent renaissance, Stokes appeared frustrated at times; lost, even. Five dominant minutes would give way to a vanishing act, sometimes thanks to eager referee whistles. Now Stokes is in control — controlling the glass on both ends, allowing his rebounding ability to bolster his scoring, and breaking free from the double-teams that have caged him for much of his second year in Knoxville.
"I feel freer," Stokes said, soon adding, "I feel like I can be more physical, just not having that fear that you're going to get taken out because of fouls."
Some still believe the opposition gets away with too much defending Stokes.
"I personally think he's still being fouled a lot," UT junior guard Jordan McRae said. "He's shooting probably 11 free throws a game, but it should be up to, like, 18 or 20."
Martin is generally disinterested in returning to the topic of officiating and Stokes. He'd rather laud Stokes.
That's another change.
"It's the work that he's putting in," Martin said. "I couldn't have said that in the beginning of the season. Now you'd like to think projection-wise that he'd be there, but he wasn't at that level. Now he's a guy, OK, every time down we can put the ball in his hands to make plays."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn