KNOXVILLE - Jarnell Stokes is riding an impressive streak of production into Tennessee's biggest nonconference game of the basketball season.
If ever the Volunteers needed a big game from their big forward, it's this one.
Stokes has recorded double-doubles in points and rebounds in Tennessee's last four games, and though the Vols will need all hands on deck to take out 12th-ranked and unbeaten Wichita State on the road this afternoon, how the bruising 6-foot-8, 260-pound Memphis native plays likely will go a long way in whether they can pull off a remarkable victory.
"I think when you are who they say you are, or when you carry a reputation, there's a certain way you have to play anyway," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said before Thursday's practice. "That's how guys become great players. That's the difference between good and great, in my opinion. It's been going on for years.
"The great ones separate themselves from the competition, and they play at their best on a major stage, so we'll see."
Today certainly qualifies as a major stage.
The Shockers return the core of a team that made an incredible run to the Final Four last season, and they're off to another impressive start this season. Simply playing the game should help Tennessee's Ratings Percentage Index number come March, but the Vols' resume would look much barer without a win at Wichita State than it would with one.
With so much at stake, Stokes needs to continue his level of play. He double-doubled in all three of Tennessee's game in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, finishing the tournament with a 20-point, 10-rebound game against Xavier and a 21-point, 10-rebound performance in the rout of Wake Forest.
The chiseled, head-banded big man had 19 points to go with 13 rebounds against Tennessee Tech a week ago.
"I've stayed out of foul trouble," Stokes said when asked to explain his current level of play. "I lost weight. I got in shape. I got in much better shape, so I was able to showcase my skills and able to go after more rebounds at a longer period of time.
"The longer I play, the better my stats will be, but I like how when I'm scoring the ball, we win ballgames. I think Coach has made that very aware, that when the bigs are scoring, we win. A guy like Jordan [McRae], he scores the ball so well, he'll get his anyway. He'll find a way."
For the season, Stokes, who now has 23 double-doubles in 58 college games, is averaging nearly 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, and he's shooting 68.7 percent from the free-throw line, where he was a career 56.7 percent shooter entering the season.
Stokes admitted he's not satisfied by the points and rebounds he's leaving out on the floor, and his coach agreed.
"He could play at a higher level," Martin said. "If you feel like you're leaving some out there, then go get it. Make the corrections. One thing he does is he spends a lot of time watching film.
"He's done a better job of making his free throws. I feel like he needs to improve his defensive rebounding. I feel like there are opportunities around the rim that he's got to continue to capitalize on. There's still a few layups and close shots that he could make around the rim."
In nine career games against ranked opponents, Stokes has just one double-double, and that was a 16-point, 12-board game against Connecticut in the third game he played at Tennessee after joining the Vols in midseason two years ago.
Today would be a great time for No. 2.
"Jarnell's a great player, and he's pretty much always our first option," guard Josh Richardson said. "Any time we can get the ball down to him for easy scores, that's what we're going to do. If he gets doubled, or they start throwing some crazy stuff at him, we'll be ready on the perimeter.
"It's really no pressure, but if he plays well, it's just another boost for us. If he's not having a very on game, we've got other guys that can pick up the slack. But if he plays well, then that just makes it that much easier on everybody."
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