Cuonzo Martin on the play of Jarnell Stokes and playing in SEC
Cuonzo Martin on facing Kentucky and his plan to 'crash the glass'
A place as lopsided as Rupp Arena isn't befitting a man or a team looking for balance.
Too darn bad.
The man is Jarnell Stokes. The team is Tennessee men's basketball.
Both are unsteady. Both are going to Rupp on Tuesday for a meeting with Kentucky.
"When I was being patient, guys were telling me I need to get the ball and go, but now that I'm being more aggressive, guys are telling me to be patient," Stokes said Monday, seemingly coming to the realization as he spoke the words. "I just need to find a balance between the two."
As for the rest of the Vols, a group shambling and sinking through a three-game losing streak, any steady ground will be welcomed. An 8-6 record is unexpected. An 0-2 start in the SEC is disconcerting.
It all goes hand-in-hand. If Tennessee is to take a step forward, the stride will need to come under Stokes' broad shoulders.
"We can turn this around," he said resolutely, knowing a spotlight awaits him in Lexington.
On Monday, Kentucky coach John Calipari reached back to last February to remind everyone of this quote from Stokes: "I want to win at Rupp Arena. I plan on winning, before I leave, at Rupp Arena. I'm saying that on the record right now."
Calipari mentioned the prediction to his Wildcats. Then he asked them, what are you going to do about it?
This year's version of Big Blue hasn't measured up to last year's virtuoso national champions. Kentucky (10-5, 1-1 SEC) is still moored to Calipari's out-gun, out-fun you approach, but his latest cache of freshmen hasn't clicked. A home loss Saturday to Texas A&M showed how far the nation's preseason No. 3 team currently is from reaching bloated expectations.
Don't tell that to the 23,000 some-odd fans expected tonight at Rupp, though.
"I don't have any words for that place," said Josh Richardson, who wide-eyed his way through UT's 33rd loss in 37 games at Rupp as a freshman last year. "It's a tough place to play. We cannot get caught up in the atmosphere."
Richardson, the Vols' top defender, likely will be assigned 6-foot-4 guard Archie Goodwin. The Cats' leading scorer (15.7 ppg) has outshone fellow five-star freshmen Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress. He's athletic. He's aggressive. He'll be in the NBA next year.
Spurred by Goodwin and point guard Ryan Harrow, Kentucky's unyielding transition attack posts 77.4 points per game.
"You can't allow to let those guys get easy baskets," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "When they get easy baskets in transition, it's a long night."
Calipari's concern is on the baskets that don't fall. The Cats were outrebounded 32-27 by A&M and gave up 20 offensive rebounds in a narrow win at Vanderbilt last week.
The Vols rank third in the SEC in rebound margin at plus-4.7.
"We're going to have trouble," Calipari said. "That's one of the issues we'll have to deal with."
Much of the Vols' offense will again hinge on Jordan McRae, who has averaged 24.3 points over the three-game losing streak. Struggling junior point guard Trae Golden, however, will remain out of the starting lineup for the second straight game, according to Martin.
In essence mired in a sophomore slump, Stokes has been consistently inconsistent through UT's 14 games. Sometimes he's aggressive, but doesn't capitalize on hard-earned free throws (53.1 percent). Other times he's meek, simply jockeying from block to block.
It all goes back to the balance he mentioned.
"I think somewhere inside him, he hasn't said it this way, he tries to avoid maybe getting fouled because he's not a great free-throw shooter and that's something he spends a lot of time on," Martin said. "I just tell him, 'Go ahead and miss the free throws. You've got to stay aggressive and be active.' When he's aggressive, I think that's when he's at his best."
For the umpteenth time, Stokes switched his free-throw style Sunday. He changed his routine to no routine at all. Just catch and shoot.
"I'm keeping it simple," he said.
Maybe simplicity can lead to balance.
"This is definitely a big game for both teams," Stokes noted, "as far as wanting to turn their season around."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn