KNOXVILLE -- Jarnell Stokes is the asterisk, the wild card on Tennessee's NCAA tournament resume.
The freshman forward's performance in the Volunteers' two wins last week made him the Southeastern Conference player of the week. The Vols are 10-5 since Stokes enrolled and made his debut against Kentucky in January, a stretch that includes eight wins in the last nine games. For a UT team that may can play its way to an NCAA at-large bid at the SEC tournament in New Orleans later this week, the addition of Stokes is a key factor.
"I thought we were playing pretty good ball because he didn't play in the Florida game, but it's just another piece," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday. "Kentucky's good because they have multiple pieces that can play. When you're trying to be one of the best teams in America -- like North Carolina has multiple guys that can make plays -- he's really helped from that standpoint because you have to identify him on the floor.
"When our guards penetrate the lane, it's hard to leave Jeronne [Maymon] and Jarnell because they make plays, and you have to box them out. He opens up doors for you [because] there's too many options."
The 6-foot-8 Stokes scored a career-high 18 points with seven rebounds in UT's comeback last week at LSU. He followed it up with 11 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots against Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Memphis native is third on the team in scoring (9.1 ppg) and second in rebounds per game (7.8).
As he said a few weeks ago, Martin said Monday that Stokes is far from his full potential. As a midseason addition, he didn't go through the same grind of learning Martin's system as his teammates did in the fall.
Martin called Stokes' performance against the Commodores his best of the season, particularly on defense.
"Playing post defense, challenging the shooters when our guards were lazy, getting his hands up on the shooters -- I thought he did a really good job with his whole floor game," the coach said. "He's a double-double guy, even on a bad night. But right now, I don't think he's the player he's going to be.
"That's just really him getting the feel for the system. Everything is still fast-paced and moving. Once it really kind of slows down and he gets a gauge of everything, he'll be a special player."
Stokes struggled some this season, as expected. He had just 13 total points and 17 total rebounds in a four-game stretch that included a game he missed with a wrist injury. In his last six games, though, Stokes averaged 10.3 points and eight rebounds and had a block in all but one game.
Martin said he didn't think Stokes hit the proverbial freshman wall, but rather the attention paid to him by opponents and all the new responsibilities that he dubbed "mentally taxing" were impeding his development.
"One of the things that's always difficult is when you inject a player of that talent level into a team and he hasn't been there from the beginning, there is always a feeling-out process, a chemistry process," said Florida coach Billy Donovan. "One is probably him getting in shape and getting him comfortable in learning the system and doing those kinds of things.
"Each week that goes by, he's probably in the position where he's more and more comfortable in his role, and I think probably the guys on the team are more comfortable in terms of what he's bringing to the table."
What Stokes brings to the table of the NCAA tournament selection committee is a tricky evaluation. Teams are judged based on a body of work, but the committee generally takes the loss of injured or suspended players into account. Though the committee might have used the same principle in evaluating a team that had a transfer become eligible at midseason, there's no precedent for a high school recruit enrolling early and making such an impact.
"We're a better team and a different team. There's no question about that," Martin said. "The guys on the team before Jarnell Stokes have gotten better."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.