After being trashed at Thompson-Boling Arena by Memphis and Ole Miss, Tennessee's basketball program needs someone to clean up the mess. Appropriately enough, a self-styled "garbage man" is ready to volunteer.
Former five-star signee Jarnell Stokes was supposed to have his breakout year as a college sophomore this season. With post partner Jeronne Maymon redshirting due to a bum knee, however, Stokes is so blanketed by opposing defenses that getting him the ball is a real challenge.
Fortunately, there's a Plan B: If you can't get the ball to Stokes, then have Stokes go get the ball.
"I just made a promise to myself that, regardless of whether I get the ball or not, I'm going to crash the glass," he said this week. "I'm going to play garbage man. I I think that's all it (the key to success) is."
By aggressively utilizing his heft around the basket the 6-foot-8, 270-pound Stokes has been able to pick up some so-called garbage buckets off loose balls and offensive rebounds lately. Result: After attempting just three field goals and two free throws in Game 11 against Xavier, he attempted nine field goals and six free throws in Game 12 versus Memphis, then followed with 13 field-goal tries and nine free-throw attempts in Game 13 versus Ole Miss.
Not surprisingly, more shots are resulting in more production. After posting 6 points and a season-low 3 rebounds versus Xavier, Stokes bounced back in a big way against Memphis (11 points, 9 rebounds) and Ole Miss (15 points, 11 rebounds).
Although he has produced a career-high 26 points each of the past two games, junior wing Jordan McRae wants to see the ball in Stokes' hands even more often, starting with today's 12:05 CST (1:05 Eastern) tip-off at Alabama.
"I'm just concentrating on taking good shots," McRae said. "We've really got to get Jarnell the ball more."
Stokes is not assertive by nature, which is why teammates are constantly prodding him to attack the basket. They realize that few opponents can stop the muscular Memphian once he builds a head of steam.
"We just told Jarnell: 'If it's a double-team or triple-team, just power through everybody because we need you on the line. We need you to score for us,'" McRae said. "That's something he's going to have to continue to do for us the whole year."
Though pleased with Stokes' recent flurry of points and rebounds, Tennessee's head coach is far from satisfied with it.
"I think he¹s improving in certain areas but we've got to get him to the next level," Cuonzo Martin said.
Obviously, Stokes' effectiveness has been compromised by the absence of Maymon, who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in 2011-12. Replacement Kenny Hall has been wildly erratic. He followed a 13-point, 11-rebound effort against Memphis with a zero-point, zero-rebound effort versus Ole Miss. Clearly losing his composure, he fouled out in just 12 minutes of court time.
"Kenny's a senior," Martin said. "Five fouls in 12 minutes ... you've got to do your job."
Basically, all of the Vols need to do their jobs defensively because the Big Orange has been shredded the past two games. After allowing just 56.4 points per game in the first 11 outings, Tennessee has allowed 88.5 the last two.
"We didn't keep guys out of the lane, this game and the last game," Stokes conceded. "When guys are able to drive and get into the paint it's never good. The percentages go up higher in rebounding (because Vol posts are providing help defense instead of blocking out to rebound)."
Given that the Rebels had lost 11 consecutive times in Thompson-Boling Arena prior to Wednesday night, their 92-74 romp was a shocker to most fans. Not so for the Vols, who have learned to expect the unexpected once conference play begins.
"The SEC has so many evenly matched teams that if you don't come with it, guys can get blown out," Stokes said. "We feel like we can win every game from here on out, so I don't think this took anyone's confidence. We should win the next couple of games we play."
Only if the "garbage man" helps clean up the mess left by the two previous games.
GAME NOTES: Alabama has owned Tennessee this century, posting an 11-5 record from 2000 to the present.... Tennessee brings an 8-5 overall record and an 0-1 SEC mark into today's game. Bama comes in 8-6 and 0-1.... The Crimson Tide got off to a blazing 6-0 start this season but has gone 2-6 since then.... Tennessee is 3-7 on its last 10 trips to Tuscaloosa.... The Vols are 6-0, including 4-0 this season, when Stokes makes at least six field goals.... McRae has averaged 20.0 points per game over the past three contests and taken the team lead in 3-point shooting at 33.9 percent (20 of 59). He ranks seventh among all SEC players in free-throw percentage at 82.2.... Today's game will be televised by ESPN2.