Never a doubt

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Tennessee's basketball players were heckled unmercifully by the home crowd in the late stages of a 69-51 loss at Memphis on Jan. 4, with the worst venom directed at a Vol who wasn't even in uniform.

Having graduated at mid-term from Memphis Southwind High School mere weeks earlier, Jarnell Stokes had enraged the home folks by picking Tennessee over the local Tigers. Now, as the 5-star recruit sat on the visitors' bench at Fed-Ex Forum awaiting clearance to play, he was jeered by people who previously cheered him.

"It definitely put a chip on my shoulder," Stokes recalled this week. "I learned a lot of things about how your hometown can turn on you in a heartbeat. But I still like Memphis. Hopefully, we'll play Memphis again."

Although the Tigers hammered the Vols by 18 points on that fateful night in early January, Stokes insists he felt no regrets about signing with Tennessee. He saw qualities in the Big Orange that convinced him the team was on the right track.

"One thing I did see after the game was that guys were picking each other up," he said. "Guys were mad about the way they played but then said, 'OK, we've got Florida next,' and you saw the perseverance in how they came back and beat Florida the next game."

Indeed. Three days after the Memphis meltdown, Tennessee bounced back to shock the 13th-ranked Gators, 67-56. Stokes didn't get to play in that game or in a 62-58 loss at Mississippi State that followed, but finally debuted against second-ranked Kentucky Jan. 14 in Knoxville. Producing 9 points and 4 rebounds in 17 relief minutes was a strong outing for a guy who missed his senior season of high school ball due to TSSAA transfer rules and hadn't played in an actual game since AAU action last August.

"I learned a lot of things about how your hometown can turn on you in a heartbeat. But I still like Memphis. Hopefully, we'll play Memphis again."

Jarnell Stokes

Stokes would produce several more strong outings in the weeks that followed. He made his first college start in his third college game, recording a double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) Jan. 21 against No. 13 UConn in a 60-57 Vol victory. He grabbed five of his 10 rebounds off the offensive glass in a Jan. 24 loss at Vanderbilt. He registered 11 points, 6 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 assists and 2 blocks Jan. 28 against Auburn.

As his minutes increased, however, so did the stress on Stokes' big body. Because he hadn't played since August, he was not in tip-top shape when he arrived on The Hill.

"When I first came here I was amazed at how much work you had to put in," he said. "It wasn't just physical; it was also mental."

The physical and mental strain seemed to catch up to him in February. When Stokes' production began to decline some observers suggested the "freshman wall" was the culprit.

"I don't think he hit a wall," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I think more than anything the conditioning probably kicked in. I think initially he was running on adrenalin and emotion and atmosphere and the crowd getting him through situations."

Regardless, Stokes rallied in late February to finish the regular season with a flourish. He made 9 of 10 shots and scored 18 points in a crucial win at LSU, then posted 11 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks against Vanderbilt. Those two performances earned him SEC Player of the Week recognition.

"I stepped up when the team needed me," he said. "I rebounded and blocked shots and scored when the team needed me. I feel like I played a good role."

One day after getting Player of the Week recognition, Stokes was chosen to the All-Freshman Team by league coaches.

"I'm definitely happy about that award," he said, grinning broadly. "Coming in here, I never would've thought I'd make All-Freshman. I've only been here two months now, and that's a very prestigious award. That definitely beats McDonald's (High School) All-American."

The fact the all-freshman recognition came from SEC coaches made the honor even more rewarding.

"It definitely is special because those coaches recruited me," Stokes said. "For them to still like me after I went to Tennessee, that definitely means a lot to me."

Making his all-freshman recognition all the more remarkable is the fact he played in just 14 of Tennessee's 31 games.

"I think that's a credit to how he was raised, his talent level, how he was coached and his understanding of the game," Martin said. "He's got a chance to be a really good player.... He's learning stuff on the fly and he's doing a great job adjusting."

Despite the progress Stokes has made, his coach says the raw rookie is operating at "around 75 percent" of his potential.

"He's a double/double guy, even on a bad night," Martin said. "Right now I don't think he's the player he's going to be. It's more about getting a feel for the system than anything. Everything is still fast for him. Once it slows down and he gets a gauge of everything, he'll be a special player."

Based on the All-Freshman balloting, the other 11 SEC coaches think Stokes is a special player already.

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