Wiedmer: Can Jarnell Stokes stoke tournament run?

Wiedmer: Can Jarnell Stokes stoke tournament run?

January 22nd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE -- By the time Tennessee travels to Vanderbilt Tuesday night to take on the Commodores, Big Orange freshman Jarnell Stokes may have his own television show ("Tennessee Idol"), his own social network ("In Your Facebook") and his own super-sized shoe line ("Stokers") for all those folks who wear size-20 sneakers.

Three games into his Rookie 0.5 season the guy's already become college basketball's version of Tim Tebow: Too good to be true ... but is.

Or don't you think a just-turned-18 kid scoring 16 points, pulling down 12 rebounds and blocking two shots in his first collegiate start is a big deal?

Especially when it giftwraps a stunning 60-57 victory over defending national champion Connecticut in front of 21,114 fans on "We Back Pat [Summitt] Day" inside Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday afternoon?

"Stokes is a presence," said losing coach Jim Calhoun, who tried mightily to sign the 6-foot-8, 270-pound Memphis native before the player discovered UT was about the only place which had a scholarship available for him at midseason, or five months before he was supposed to graduate from Southwind High School.

"He's proof that you don't have to be 7-foot-5 to succeed in the post. He's wide and he's strong."

All the Vols were strong this day against a Huskies bunch that's supposed to be one of the physically toughest teams in the land.

Instead, said Calhoun, "[Tennessee] dug and scratched and clawed. We thought on tape that they played hard and they played harder than we did today. That's how they won the game."

Nor did Stokes' wide, strong Bruise Brother -- 6-7, 265-pound junior Jeronne Maymon -- necessarily disagree with Calhoun's assessment.

"A lot of teams wouldn't [bang with us]," Maymon said with a grin. "Especially with the size we are and toughness we have. I wouldn't say [UConn] backed away, but they didn't seem to want to push the issue, either."

With Stokes now starting, the Vols (9-10) just might win enough games to push an intriguing issue with the NCAA tournament selection committee come March.

Much as the committee supposedly studies how a team plays with or without an injured player once that player is healthy at tourney time, let the Vols show through wins and quality losses that they are a much better team since Stokes first took the court against Kentucky on Jan. 14 than they were in the 16 games (8-8) before he arrived, and they might just crash the Big Dance.

But even if they fall short of the big tourney, the big chance UT coach Cuonzo Martin supposedly took in bringing Stokes along so far so fast could deliver big, big dividends this time next year, when Stokes -- who's certainly good enough to go to the NBA -- will still be wearing UT Orange because his Southwind graduating class won't have yet been out of high school for a year.

Maybe that's why his teammates have already taken to calling Stokes the Big Future, because as long as he's a Vol, the program clearly has one.

Of course, he could have been a UConn Husky instead of a UT Vol. The Memphis native had the defending national champs among his final six choices, right there beside UT, Memphis, Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas.

"I definitely love Coach Calhoun and [assistant] Kevin Ollie," Stokes said. "You're being recruiting by the defending national champs. Who wouldn't consider that?"

But there was also something about Martin that drew him in.

"We'd never talk long -- maybe five or 10 minutes tops," said the player of his early recruiting conversations with Martin. "But Coach Martin is sort of like me, he likes to wake up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning. We've had conversations that early. He's a very engaging guy. We really connected in those talks."

Now all the Vols are connecting on the court. They've now beaten two ranked teams since the first of the year in Florida and UConn. They barely lost last week to No. 2 Kentucky, which should become No. 1 following previously unbeaten and top-ranked Syracuse's loss to Notre Dame.

"[The Vols] outworked us, they were tougher than we were," Calhoun said. "You can win a lot of games that way. [Martin] has obviously got something going. Stokes was terrific. But their team was terrific."

Said Stokes: "I'm getting more adjusted to the college game ... I'm looking forward to Vanderbilt."

Thanks to Stokes, the rest of the Big Orange Nation may be about to share his enthusiasm for this once directionless season.