Last year, Jarnell Stokes quickly became the man in the middle for Tennessee.
This season, with fellow forward Jeronne Maymon out with a knee injury, Stokes once again is the center of attention.
Opponents are ganging up on the 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore, who leads the Vols (8-4) into their Southeastern Conference opener against Ole Miss on Wednesday.
“With Jeronne being out, I think Jarnell sees the double team a lot more,” coach Cuonzo Martin said on the SEC coaches teleconference on Monday. “Now he is making those adjustments on the fly without that guy who was helping and really walking and talking him through those things. He has done a good job with that because he plays with such a level of poise. He is doing a great job of taking care of the basketball and making good decisions.”
Stokes and the Vols are trying to carry on without Maymon, who hasn’t played this season after averaging 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds last year.
Martin announced on Sunday Maymon would redshirt this season and return next year as a fifth-year senior.
“I think what you lose is a level of toughness,” Martin said. “He is just a physical, tough hard-nosed guy who plays with a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a great IQ for the game, a great leader. More than anything, his teammates love playing with him, love being around him.”
Tennessee, coming off a five-point loss to Memphis on Friday, has attempted to make up for his absence with balanced scoring. Guards Trae Golden (11.8) and Jordan McRae (11.6) and Stokes (11.3) all average more than 11 points a game.
When the Vols have lost, though, they’ve struggled to make shots. They scored 45 points in a loss to Oklahoma State and less than 40 in losses to Georgetown and Virginia. They rank 11th in the SEC with just 64.5 points a game.
Stokes is the biggest target for opponents, especially since he shoots a team-high 56.2 percent from the field. The Memphis native also leads the Vols with 7.5 rebounds a game as he builds off his All-SEC Freshman campaign.
“When you lose that type of leadership and quality of a person [that Maymon brought], it is not an easy transition,” Martin said. “One of things that helps us is we didn’t have a lot of practice time with him. So we had to make the adjustments. Guys had to learn some hard lessons early in the season. So now I think we’re better for it.”