INDIANAPOLIS — Amid the widespread reaction among national media and fans to the charge called on Jarnell Stokes at the end of Tennessee's Sweet 16 loss to Michigan on Friday night lies one hidden question.
Was that perhaps the All-SEC forward's final play as a Volunteer?
After flirting with jumping into the NBA draft following his sophomore season a year ago, Stokes again faces a decision about whether to continue with his college career or start his professional career.
In the immediate aftermath of the Vols' 73-71 loss in the Midwest Region semifinal, Stokes was unwilling to tip his hand.
"I see so many guys just declare for the draft right after the game, or that night," he said after scoring 11 points in the loss, "and I'm thinking like, 'Were you even focused on the season?'
"Right now I'm just going to pray about it and get advised."
The Vols may not have to wait long to find out the decision from the 6-foot-8 junior, who averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game this season.
Underclassmen have until April 27 to declare for June's draft, and unlike with the NFL, players can declare for the draft and withdraw their names and retain their college eligibility as long as they don't hire an agent. Per NCAA rules, the deadline to withdraw is April 15.
The Memphis native averaged 18 points and 12.8 rebounds in Tennessee's four NCAA tournament games and piled up 22 double-doubles this season. He shared the national lead in that category with Kentucky's Julius Randle, though the freshman notched his 23rd in the Wildcats' win against Louisville. Stokes tied Bernard King for the Tennessee single-season record.
In a loaded draft, though, it's unlikely that Stokes will receive more than a second-round grade. He probably never initially planned to play four seasons in college, but some around the Tennessee program suggest that his declaring for the draft isn't as much a sure thing as it seemed entering the season.
If his charge into Michigan's Jordan Morgan does end up being his final play at Tennessee, it likely will be a finale he won't soon forget.
The play was debated by national analysts on television and social media for a while Friday night, and there seemed to be a division on whether official David Hall made the call correctly.
On one NCAA tournament postgame show, analyst Doug Gottlieb believed it was a charge, while colleague Seth Davis thought it should have been a block.
"It's the hardest call the official has to make," Davis added.
It wasn't the first last-minute charge Morgan has taken in a key NCAA tournament game.
In last season's Final Four, the 6-10 center drew an iffy charge as Syracuse guard Brandon Triche drove to the basket with the Wolverines up 58-56 and less than 20 seconds left.
"They set a screen for him to come open, so I knew that the play was going to be for him," said Morgan, who had 15 points and seven rebounds against the Vols. "I just know he likes to play bully ball, and he's in a stance ready. I don't know. I just was there. It's just something I do. I take charges. That's what I do."
More than a couple of Tennessee players felt differently.
"There's only 16 teams left in the country," Vols leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "I'm not trying to criticize the officiating at all, but at a time like that, with two players moving, two big bodies moving, you can't call a charge. You can't call anything."
Though Michigan's Caris LeVert slapped the ball away from Stokes as he went into his move, it appeared the steal and contact with Morgan happened simultaneously.
"Jarnell's been our bread-and-butter all season," Tennessee point guard Antonio Barton said. "We live and die by him. It was a good call, Coach drew up a good play and I feel as though he got fouled. He would've finished at the free-throw line.
"I'm a little frustrated with the game, but at the same time, we fought," he added. "This is a team everybody counted out and said we weren't supposed to be here. We made it to the Sweet 16. We overcame a lot of obstacles and a lot of difficulties, but even with the loss I'm still proud of these guys."
Multiple Vols shared that sense of pride.
"I'm not big on moral victories or anything like that," guard Josh Richardson said. "It [stinks], but I think we did a good job of just coming back that second half and giving them a better game than we did in the first."
Now Tennessee will wonder if Stokes will give them good news by returning.
"I'm not even thinking about it right now," he said following Tennessee's regular-season finale against Missouri.
He will be now.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
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 ...