Vols' Jarnell Stokes eager to play hometown Tigers team

Vols' Jarnell Stokes eager to play hometown Tigers team

January 4th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes warms up before an NCAA college basketball game

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - When Jarnell Stokes steps on the Thompson-Boling Arena floor tonight, he'll see a very familiar name and color on the jerseys across the court from him.

It's the same name and colors the Tennessee forward grew up watching.

The game against his hometown Memphis Tigers carries more weight for the Volunteers' talented sophomore, but he's trying not to overthink the scenario that will play out tonight in Knoxville.

"I'm definitely trying not to make it personal," Stokes said this week. "Being from Memphis, of course I want to play well, but I don't want to get into a personal battle. At the end of the day it's whoever wins the game gets the glory.

"It's a lot of buzz for this game. People believe it could go either way. That's a good thing."

The future of the rivalry has been the focus this week. The series looked to be ending for the foreseeable future after tonight, but according to multiple reports in Memphis, the schools are close to continuing it. Tom Bowen confirmed the ongoing discussions, also involving football, to the Commercial Appeal.

"We are re-evaluating everything," Bowen said. "The problem right now with us scheduling in basketball is the [uncertainty] surrounding the Big East. I told [Tennessee athletic director] Dave Hart when I get more definitives we can sit down and talk about games and what we're going to do.

"Tennessee is important for us."

Stokes lived in Memphis, grew up attending Tigers games and became a "big fan" of some Memphis players. Seven players on the Tigers' roster are from Memphis, and Stokes played on an AAU team with Memphis freshman Shaq Goodwin.

Instead of doing what so many Memphis high school prospects have done in recent years -- stay home and play for a program that's loved by its city -- Stokes chose to play for the Vols. He announced that decision 12 days before the Vols played Memphis at the FedEx Forum last season. Stokes and his family, in orange, sat behind the Tennessee bench, but they were still close enough to the all-blue crowd that night.

"That was one of my worst memories," Stokes recalled. "That was a reality check that it's all business. Memphis, once you leave, you're not welcome no more at home."

He said fans threw popcorn at him, called him a "hillbilly" among other things and compared him to LeBron James, the NBA star who left his hometown team to play for the Miami Heat.

"I don't see that comparison at all," he said.

In his first full season at Tennessee, Stokes hasn't had the kind of year many hoped and expected. The indefinite absence of Jeronne Maymon has led to Stokes facing continuous double and triple teams. He's scored in double figures in just five of the Vols' 11 games.

After 18- and 12-point games, Stokes played just 21 minutes against Xavier in Tennessee's last game and sat for an 11-minute stretch of the second half while reserves helped the Vols rally from a 10-point hole.

"You've got to play hard and compete," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "That's the bottom line. It wasn't a case of, OK, let me send a message to these guys. Everybody's a part of this team.

"We've got to do everything in our power to win a basketball game, then we move forward. It's not a case of I'm going to single out this guy or show this guy. More than anything you applaud the guys that were in the game that didn't get a lot of minutes because they were ready to play."

Stokes understood why his minutes were limited.

"I think he sort of benched a couple of guys, if that's what you want to call it," he said. "Rightfully so, because those [reserve] guys were playing well.

"At the time it was disappointing, but after the game I just realized Coach made the right decision because those guys were playing well. I hope it never happens again. Hopefully I'm playing well."

He'd certainly like to start tonight.

"At the end of the day it's about getting the win," he said, "so I don't want to make anything personal."