KNOXVILLE — Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes is trying to find his groove.
He'll now do it against a team trying to do the same.
After his free-throw shooting woes earned Stokes a spot on the bench down the stretch of the Volunteers' loss Saturday at Alabama, the search for a balance between aggressiveness and efficiency continues at Kentucky, where the defending national champions are coming off a rare home loss.
"I feel like these last two games I've made steps in being aggressive and I feel like I made good moves and I played hard, but I just didn't finish," Stokes said Monday before practice. "It's me not finishing, not making free throws and just missing easy point-blank layups. I'm not too stressed out about the way I've been playing lately."
Any home loss is stressful for Kentucky's faithful fan base, and the 40-point performance by Texas A&M's Elston Turner prolonged the Wildcats' search for continuity with nearly an entirely different roster than the one that lost only twice on the way to the program's seventh national title last season.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin and his players answered multiple questions Monday about playing in vaunted Rupp Arena, but the focus for Kentucky coach John Calipari is solely on his team.
"What is the frame of mind of our team?" he wondered aloud during Monday's SEC coaches' teleconference. "Are we beginning to buy into how we have to play to finish off people? That's the challenge I have with this team.
"The only thing that brings about a change is crisis. I'm hoping it's Texas A&M, but it may not be. We may need to get hit on the chin three or four more times before they look at each other and say, 'It's not working this way.'"
While Calipari spoke during the conference call of his players buying in, Stokes was the topic du jour during Martin's Monday news conference. The talented sophomore scored just six points on 2-of-7 shooting and played just 21 minutes against the Crimson Tide. Though he's shown glimpses of his ability, Stokes has underperformed, at least according to the preseason's lofty expectations.
"I think he's made progress," Martin said. "The thing I've talked to him about all the time is demanding the ball more. I think the next step for Jarnell is to demand the ball every time down.
"The thing for him is working on a couple extra [post] moves that he's worked on all the time. I think somewhere inside him -- he hasn't said this -- he tries to avoid maybe getting fouled because he's not a great free-throw shooter. That's something you've got to work on."
Stokes, a 53 percent free-throw shooter this season, said he tries to draw contact when he's trying to score near the basket. He openly talked about his struggles at the line and said Saturday, when those struggles denied him a chance to play crunch-time minutes, was "very frustrating." In the last two days, the Memphis native has practiced a new pre-shot routine of shooting more quickly without a dribble.
"I make them all the time in practice," Stokes said, "but when it comes to game time, I don't know, I think I just feel stronger."
Martin wants him to remain aggressive of offense regardless of free-throw problems or forced shots against double or triple teams, though he acknowledged a balance between the two.
"When he's aggressive, that's when he's playing at his best," the coach said. "That's just something he has to feel through the course of the game. Every team in America has somebody or one or two guys that has the type of presence on the floor where people identify him.
"Sometimes you have to attack and be aggressive. When you have a great scorer, sometimes they force the issue. That's part of it."
It may be the key part for Stokes in finding his form.
"When I was being patient, guys were telling me I just need to get the ball and go," he said. "Now that I'm being more aggressive, guys are telling me to be patient. I just need to find a balance between the two."
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 ...
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