Stokes stars in romp

InsideTennessee is your No. 1 source for all things Orange. Check out this story on the Basketball Vols' exhibition opener:

Saturday's exhibition opener against Div. II Florida Southern answered several crucial questions for Tennessee's basketball program:

- Can the Vols adapt to the faster pace head coach Cuonzo Martin wants to play this season? Answer: Evidently. Despite a sloppy first half, they rallied to shoot 60.7 percent from the field (37 of 61) en route to a 105-80 romp.

- How healthy is the knee that caused Jeronne Maymon to miss the entire 2012-13 season? Answer: Pretty healthy. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound senior produced 8 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in 17 solid minutes.

"It felt really good to be back," he said. "I felt really excited, really nervous. I had a mixture of feelings but I felt like I went out and had a really good game. I didn't turn the ball over as many times (twice in 17 minutes) as I thought I would. I'm glad about that part."

- Can Jordan McRae continue to build on the 2012-13 success that saw him finish runnerup for SEC Player of the Year honors? Answer: Probably. He hit 6 of 8 floor shots and 8 of 9 foul shots Saturday en route to a 21-point, 9 rebound, 3-assist effort.

- Are five-star signee Robert Hubbs' offensive abilities as good as advertised? Apparently so. The 6-foot-6 freshman hit 7 of 12 shots, including 3 of 5 from beyond the arc, en route to scoring 17 points in 29 relief minutes. Getting a dunk mere minutes after coming off the bench was a big lift.

"At first I felt a little nervous," he said. "I kept thinking, ‘Man, I got to hit this first shot. After I did my confidence went from a little to a lot. I just got in my groove."

- How would freshman Darius Thompson handle his first start at point guard? Answer: Quite well. He produced 9 points, 4 assists and a steal in 20 turnover-free minutes.

"I'm not going to lie: When I got out there I was a little bit nervous," he admitted. "I really didn't settle down till the second half. That's when I started getting into a rhythm, getting assists and setting up my teammates."

- Final question: Who was that agile guy wearing Jarnell Stokes' No. 5 jersey? Answer: That was Stokes. After dropping from 274 pounds last season to 258, he looked like a different player against Florida Southern. He was rising above the rim for dunks. He was running the floor for transition baskets. He was maneuvering for reverse layups. The results were astounding: 11 of 13 from the field and 5 of 7 from the foul line, with 27 points and 10 rebounds in just 23 minutes of action.

Admittedly "embarrassed" by how slow he looked in 2012-13 game film, Stokes spent the offeseason narrowing his waist and expanding his game. He said he hopes to "lose three or four more pounds, and I probably will do that playing at this speed."

In addition to playing with more quickness and agility this season, Stokes is playing with considerably more urgency these days.

"I wanted to increase my motor," he admitted. "That's something I haven't had in previous years.… Last year I played standing up. I wasn't in a stance or anything at any point in the game. I was too tired to talk and too tired to hedge screens."

After being double- and triple-teamed in 2012-13, Stokes was thrilled to have Maymon back. In addition to helping share the inside load, Maymon made the key pass on several of Stokes' baskets.

"I'm glad to have someone out there who's older and understands the game," Stokes said. "That's the biggest thing that was missing last year at that position: He understands the game. If I duck in on the high-low pass he'll see me. And he takes up my slack on the defense and rebounding end."

Ultimately, Saturday's exhibition answered a lot of questions. Still, two big ones remain:

- How will the availability of Antonio Barton (who missed Saturday's game with a leg injury) affect the squad, offensively and defensively?

- How will the Vols perform when they face another Div. I team?

The answer to those questions is still pending.

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