NASHVILLE — If Tennessee plans to hang around Bridgestone Arena long enough to leave an impression this week, the Vols, among other things, have to let the big dog eat.
Make that the big pup.
Sophomore Jarnell Stokes, two months past his 19th birthday, is one of the youngest players at the SEC basketball tournament, younger even than freshman teammate Derek Reese.
Youth, however, is not the first thing that comes to mind when Stokes walks in the room. Nor when he’s posting up on a basketball court.
What you notice is size and power. We’re talking about a 6-foot-8, 270-pound colossus with sneakers seemingly as big as some of the boats on the Cumberland River down at the end of Lower Broadway.
We’re talking about the guy then-LSU coach Trent Johnson last year dubbed “Wes Unseld Jr.” And that was when Stokes was still an 18-year-old freshman.
What officials saw when Stokes went for a rebound was, what? Tyrannosaurus Rex? Bodies will fly. There will be blood.
“He’s always been big,’’ UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Wednesday and not for the first time. “Let him be who he is.’’
Martin first raised the issue after a 62-56 loss at Ole Miss on Jan. 24. Stokes that night attempted three shots and spent much of the first half on the bench after two early fouls.
It was not an unusual predicament for Stokes during the first half of the season.
“Guys easily bounce off me,’’ Stokes said Wednesday in a Bridgestone hallway. “It’s something I can’t help.’’
But Martin’s plea to the SEC office apparently was heard.
“It was definitely a change,’’ Stokes said. “I’m able to play longer, get in a rhythm. The refs (haven’t been) calling ticky-tack fouls.
“It also helped a lot to know my coach had confidence in me.’’
The numbers confirm that there has been a change.
In the 17 games up through the Ole Miss loss, Stokes averaged 11.0 points, and 7.7 rebounds. He played an average of 26.2 minutes.
In the 13 games since Martin spoke up, Stokes averages 14.4 points, 11.9 rebounds and plays 30.8 minutes.
Martin said the timing of his plea for Stokes wasn’t just frustration at the Ole Miss game. Rather, Stokes had finally deserved his coach’s backing.
“When he started playing with a little more effort and intensity,’’ said Martin, “that’s when I said, ‘now let’s look at this.’
“When he wasn’t at the level he needed to be at, we didn’t have a case.’’
By now, Stokes, I would say, had a good case for first-team All-SEC honors. However, the league coaches didn’t agree.
In their vote, announced Tuesday, Stokes was second-team All-SEC rather than joining teammate Jordan McRae on the eight-man first team.
Without sounding whiny or brash, Stokes is at least a bit offended.
“I definitely think I should have been (first team),’’ he said, “leading the conference in rebounding, just having all the double-doubles, and dealing with the double-teams that a lot of guys don’t have to deal with.
“I guess I’ll just have to use that as fire, just try to dominate the game more. They should definitely reconsider things, if we win.’’
If not this week, next year. Tennessee’s big pup still has so much room to grow his game.
“Of 100 percent, he’s probably 75 percent,’’ said Martin. “I can only imagine when you see him a year from now. I can only imagine.’’
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.