KNOXVILLE - Jarnell Stokes already has had a big impact on the Tennessee basketball Volunteers.
The big freshman forward might have a lot of room to his ceiling, too.
Fresh off 16 points and 12 rebounds in Saturday's win over defending national champion Connecticut and the Southeastern Conference's "freshman of the week" honor, Stokes has another opportunity to develop as the Vols visit Vanderbilt tonight.
"I think the biggest key right now is for us to allow Jarnell to continue to grow," coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday, "because I think he's still 65 or 70 percent of where he could be as a player. I think more that's just the system, conditioning his body and being at this level.
"I think what he's shown more than anything is his ability and his talent level, that he's an elite talent. There's still a lot to be done and a lot to be learned, but he's doing a great job of absorbing everything."
Not surprisingly, the most immediate step for Stokes to take is on the defensive end, where he's still adjusting to new things and experiencing certain opponent actions for the first time. While the 6-foot-8 Memphis native is learning on the fly defensively, his inexperience has improved UT's defensive communication, Martin said.
The Vols are playing defense how Martin demands it, averaging less than 60 points allowed in the last five games. But that is only part of the reason for their recent surge. Stokes' ability to score in a variety of ways and his physical presence on the glass have provided UT an added dimension.
"We're about winning games," said junior guard Skylar McBee, "and if Jarnell's at 60 percent right now, I want to see him at 100 percent. That's definitely going to give us a really good chance to win."
Stokes is not the only part of that equation, however. In 11 of UT's first 14 games this season, the Vols took 19 or more 3-point shots. They've not reached that total in the last five games, a stretch that includes two wins over ranked teams and three losses by a combined 11 points.
UT's frontcourt trio of Stokes, Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall averaged 29 points and 20 rebounds among them in the past three games.
"Our post players are doing a really good job of scoring inside for us," said McBee, who's shooting 43 percent from 3-point range, from which he's taken 84 of his 94 shots this season. "Like Coach Martin says, that's part of the game plan, to pound the ball inside. I think other teams are going to start doubling our posts, and that opens it up for some of the guard play. It's about being a cohesive unit, and there has to be balance.
"You can't like and die by the 3, and you can't pound it inside all the time. I think that's what we're working toward."
Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne headline the group with whom UT's post players will battle tonight. That might seem a small step down given the talented inside duos UT faced against Kentucky and Connecticut, but Ezeli and Goulbourne both are among the SEC's top 13 rebounders. Given the Vols' winless road record this season, going inside and playing defense certainly will be the formula they use the rest of the season.
"In order for us to push forward to the next level as a team and as a program," Martin said, "when you have guys on the interior, guys that can make plays and score the ball, you have to feed them the ball.
"It's what you have to do, but at the same time it's hard to really sell that if your big guys aren't posting at the level they need to or aren't demanding the ball. It's one thing to stand down there like you're posting, and it's another thing to be posting. I think our guys are doing a good job of really presenting themselves on the blocks to receive the ball."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.