Cuonzo Martin discusses Stokes' play in Vols' win over Georgia
Jarnell Stokes talks about his 20-point, 11-rebound performance
Kenny Gaines said he and his Georgia teammates weren’t fooled by Tennessee’s 6-6 SEC record entering Tuesday night’s game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“They’re a better team than their record,” he said.
The Vols had just backed up his assessment by distancing themselves from Georgia in the second half for a 67-48 victory.
You could draw the same conclusion from UT’s two games before Georgia, although they were two losses. The Vols (16-10, 7-6) are playing better, even if the 1-2 record the past three games doesn’t show it.
They took second-ranked Florida down to the wire before losing by nine points at home last week. They came even closer to victory in a five-point loss against Missouri on the road.
Two tough losses were followed by the runaway victory against Georgia, a team that is third in the SEC and had won four consecutive games.
Tennessee has justifiably been maligned for its lack of consistency. However, when you consider the caliber of competition, consistency hasn’t been an issue since the loss at Vanderbilt on Feb. 5.
You also have to consider the competition in judging UT’s NCAA tournament chances. Tennessee seemingly could become tournament worthy by avoiding another bad loss (i.e., to anyone other than Missouri) and winning a game in the SEC tournament.
In fact, UT has no business losing to anyone other than Missouri for the rest of the regular season. Never mind that the Vols inexplicably lost on their home floor to Texas A&M last month, beating the Aggies (14-11, 5-7) on the road Saturday would hardly require an extraordinary effort.
Texas A&M will have the same problem that most SEC teams do against the Vols. It doesn’t have the inside game to match up with UT, especially power forward Jarnell Stokes, who was dominant against Georgia and was also dominant against Missouri — when he could get his hands on the basketball.
UT’s greatest overall strength is its rebounding, and that was evident against Georgia, which had become accustomed to outrebounding its opponents. UT’s superiority in that area left Georgia coach Mark Fox shaking his head.
There’s more good rebounding news for the Vols. Other than Missouri, none of their remaining opponents rank higher than eighth in the conference in either offensive or defensive rebounding.
But what happens next will have more to do with Tennessee than its opponents.
After what went wrong in the second half against Missouri and what went right against Georgia, there’s glaring evidence the offense needs to first go through Stokes.
Just his physical presence puts pressure on a defense. Moreover, he has significantly improved his shooting touch around the basket. And he’s as effective with his left hand as his right one.
Bottom line: Defenses don’t have many good options when Stokes gets the ball within a couple of dribbles of the basket.
If they devote enough manpower to deprive Stokes of the ball, Jordan McRae still would be available later in possessions.
Aside from the Stokes-first approach, Antonio Barton’s shooting was the most encouraging aspect of the Georgia game. He came off the bench to hit four of seven 3-point attempts.
His outside shooting complemented Stokes and took pressure off McRae. The resulting balance reminded you that Tennessee is a better team than its record.