The observation from Jarnell Stokes should be noted by upcoming foes.
“I think they had a good defensive gameplan against us,” Tennessee’s sophomore forward said.
He’d know. In Saturday’s 78-68 loss at Georgia, Stokes spent 31 frustration-filled minutes looking to make an offensive impact.
The search was fruitless.
Georgia coach Mark Fox pushed all his chips in Stokes’ direction. He sometimes sent two players to boxout UT’s big man. He other times used as many as three players to defend him. The Bulldogs were all-in on not allowing the Vols to run their four-guard motion offense through Stokes and kept him off the offensive glass, limiting him to two boards on that end.
Stokes finished with eight points on 3-of-7 shooting and earned only two free-throw attempts, his fewest since a late January meeting with Alabama. When Stokes did find himself with the ball, he was often 15 or 18 feet from the basket.
“Sometimes I just had to do that in order to get the ball,” he said. “Because it seems like sometimes when I’d seal (post defenders on the blocks), it was hard for them (teammates) to throw me the ball. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that just seemed like the only way I’d get it.”
The sagging, collapsing defense on Stokes was compounded by the Vols’ shooting deficiencies. Jordan McRae did his thing, scoring a career-high 35 points and hitting eight 3-pointers, but that was it. With the exception of McRae, UT’s guards combined to shoot 5-for-29 from the field.
Things only grew worse as jumpers drew iron.
“They did a good job of just packing it in the lane,” McRae said. “Every time we’d try to drive, we’d drive into a wall. There was nowhere to go. Especially for Jarnell. We were trying to get him touches, but they weren’t just sending two (players) at him — they were sending three.”
That not only limited Stokes’ touches in scoring position, but capped his offensive rebounding opportunities. In the two games prior to Saturday, he totaled 14 offensive rebounds.
“I think we have to come collectively as a group and rebound, not just me and another man,” Stokes said.
In neutralizing Stokes, Georgia outscored UT in the paint, 30-14.
Given the results, one must suspect Tennessee (17-11, 9-7 SEC) could see more of the same in its two final regular-season games at Auburn and against Missouri, as well as in next week’s SEC tournament.
Though Martin and his coaches can counter with a gameplan to free up Stokes, the onus will be on UT’s guards to reclaim their shooting touch. Running the offense through Stokes is the Vols’ starting point, not their finish line.
McRae McCooking: Coming off his blistering performance at Georgia, McRae is now averaging 29.8 points in his last four games, having made 20-of-32 3-pointers over the stretch.
Next up: Auburn is coming off a 62-55 home loss to Vanderbilt and is tied for last in the SEC at 3-13 and 9-20 overall. The Tigers average 64.3 points per game and rank 297th nationally in field-goal percentage at 40.5 percent.
What’s at stake: Saturday’s loss to Georgia added some red ink to UT’s NCAA tournament resume. It hasn’t been tossed in the trash quite yet, though.
As of Sunday, the Vols still resided in multiple mock brackets, including those from CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. Palm includes Tennessee as an 11 seed, while Lunardi counts UT as one of the tournament’s “last four teams in.”
That said, the Vols know there is no wiggle room.
“We have to beat Auburn, we have to beat Missouri,” Stokes said.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.