KNOXVILLE — Jarnell Stokes never reached the state tournament in his three years at Central High School in Memphis, though Tennessee's freshman forward played on at least one big stage before arriving in Knoxville.
Memphis YOMCA, Stokes' hometown AAU team, reached the championship game of the Peach Jam last summer before losing to a team from Boston in a game televised on ESPNU.
"I loved the Peach Jam," Stokes said of the annual event in North Augusta, S.C., that serves as one of the premier events on the AAU circuit. "It was a big tournament."
None of those games are bigger than the ones Stokes and his teammates could play this week. The Volunteers visit LSU tonight and host Vanderbilt on Saturday with a lot at stake. Sweeping the two games could give the Vols a first-round SEC tournament bye and sustain their postseason chances.
"I definitely realize how important they are," said the 6-foot-8 Stokes, who's averaging 8.3 points and seven rebounds per game since joining the Vols in January. "I definitely want to win. I definitely want to finish this season strong.
"When you get to this level, there's cameras everywhere. At the Peach Jam there's cameras everywhere, but at this level, [with] cameras everywhere and there's NBA scouts and all the preparation that's put into these games, we have no choice but to play your 'A' game."
After losing its first seven road games, UT has won two of its past three trips away from Knoxville, including last Saturday at South Carolina when the Vols shot 52 percent and won comfortably despite 21 turnovers.
Coach Cuonzo Martin has instilled a game-at-a-time approach with his team, though he didn't shy away from labeling this an important week.
"We're fighting for our life," he said Monday. "You have to get better every day. There's plenty of work to do, and our guys are hungry right now. We're fighting.
"We don't have any luxury of any margin for error to be happy or be successful or think we've done something special. There's plenty of work to do."
Added point guard Trae Golden: "As a basketball player that's what you have to relish. These games are huge, and we know that. We know that every team is going to be ready to play. We've just got to make sure we come out on top."
There's a different sense of urgency for senior wing Cameron Tatum. As his UT career is drawing closer to an end, the desire to do whatever it takes to lengthen it comes to the forefront.
"To be honest, I'm at a point right now on my career where every game feels like it's the same," he said. "I guess it is really hard to explain once you get to that point in your career where you've played every team and played every big game. Now every game is a big game, especially in the position that we're in.
"We just have to go out and play with a tough mindset and understand what is at stake and take it one game at a time. You can't really look forward to what's next, two games down the road -- who has to lose, who has to get here or get there. You just have to take care of what Tennessee can take care of."
UT must first take care of an LSU team that's beaten Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State in Baton Rouge. This trip has been tough the past two times for UT. The 30-win Vols needed a late JaJuan Smith basket to edge the 13-win Tigers in 2008, and 14th-ranked UT won by just five in 2010, when LSU finished last in the SEC.
"We're just trying to put ourselves in the best position possible going into the SEC tournament," guard Jordan McRae said. "From there, whatever happens."
After starting 1-4 in league play, the Vols enter the regular season's final week with unexpected stakes. Martin said he told his players during the South Carolina game of the unique opportunity in front of them.
"You've got a chance to do something special," he said. "Now let's have some fun and do some things."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...