The following excerpt comes from Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, the “bible” of college basketball now in its 32nd printing. Edited by SEC Digital Network contributor Chris Dortch, Blue Ribbon is a 400-page preview that features full stories on 345 Division I teams. To order a copy, go to www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 877-807-4857.
Key returning player: Jarnell Stokes (6-8, SO, F)
The legend of Jarnell Stokes began from the first moment he laid hands on a basketball in his first college game. Less than a month removed from graduating high school and just a week past his 18th birthday, Stokes received a pass against Kentucky, the eventual national champion, sized up his defender, the 6-11, 244-pound Eloy Vargas, took a couple of hard dribbles and let fly with a soft jump hook.
That shot was a harbinger of things to come.
Stokes was a five-star recruit who, when denied eligibility to play his senior season of high school basketball, decided who needs it anyway. He let the word out that he would graduate early in the hopes of hooking on with a college program at the semester break.
Suitors quickly lined up—at least those that had an open scholarship—and Tennessee won out over fellow SEC teams Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas. Opinions were mixed whether Stokes could help immediately or if he should redshirt and not waste a year of eligibility. Even his parents subscribed to the latter theory. But Stokes played on, and became a force. He scored nine points and grabbed four boards in his debut against Kentucky, improved to 11 points and six rebounds against Georgia, and then, against UConn, he outplayed future lottery pick Andre Drummond with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Stokes cooled off a bit after that, as any freshman inevitably would, but he picked up steam again late in the season, averaging 12.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in Tennessee’s final five games. Stokes earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team as selected by the league’s coaches.
Stokes’ task in the offseason, as mandated by Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, was to get in better shape so he could beat opponents down the floor and establish post position, be able to switch and hedge on screens, and keep up in the Vols’ motion offense. A summer’s worth of international play, and some extra individual work with the Vols’ new strength coach, Nicodemus Christopher, paid dividends. Stokes, who checked in at 275 pounds last January, will begin this season at 267, with eight percent body fat.
Stokes starred for the USA U18 team that won the gold medal in the 2012 FIBA Americas Championship in June, averaging 14.0 points and 5.6 rebounds. The U.S. team was coached by Florida’s Billy Donovan, with an assist from VCU’s Shaka Smart. Both came away impressed with the big man.
“He does a great job carving out space,” Smart said. “He’s not the tallest guy out there. He plays a lot bigger height wise than he is. In terms of his girth, he’s as strong and as wide as anybody in college basketball. When his teammates throw him the ball, he’s really done a great job of getting himself that prime real estate around the basket. And he’s a great finisher; he’s able to finish with either hand.”
“He was really dominant in a lot of ways in Brazil,” Donovan said. “There was nobody that could match up with him. He’s a big, agile guy.”
Martin wants Stokes to continue to try and assert himself in the post, and if he does that, Martin will surrender some freedom for Stokes to face up and take jump shots. But Martin and Donovan agree that Stokes needs to take advantage of that God given body of his. Stokes’ calves are a big around as most people’s thighs, he’s got a Jared Sullinger-sized backside and he wears a size 20 shoe. The dude is tough to dislodge from the post.
Despite that industrial strength frame, Stokes can move up and down the court, and he can also rise.
“The summer really helped him,” Martin said. “He’s gotten more explosive and goes up and tries to dunk everything. He’s stronger and he’s gotten better at carving out space. You can definitely see the progress he’s made.”
Key newcomer: Armani Moore (6-5, FR, G)
When Tennessee allowed its newcomers to meet with the media in Knoxville before the Vols’ trip to Italy in August, the one who seemed the most like a typical freshman—i.e., wide-eyed, culture shocked, etc.—was Moore. But in his defense Moore had endured a rough few weeks before arriving on campus.
Oral surgery kept him off the court for nearly a month, which of course set him back from a strength-and-conditioning standpoint. And worse, he lost 20 pounds he could ill afford to part with, given his then 6-foot-5, 180-pound frame.
But some intense after-practice sessions with new Tennessee strength coach Nicodemus Christopher helped Moore make up for lost time, and Moore’s play in Italy surprised even Martin. In the Vols’ first game, he contributed six points, four rebounds and two assists. Two of those boards came on the offensive end and led to put-back baskets.
In Tennessee’s next game, Moore buried a 3-pointer that sealed another victory. Moore scored 16 points in the Vols’ fourth and final game.
Tennessee coaches were impressed with Moore’s ability to handle the ball, even under full- or three-quarter-court pressure, and get to the rim. But they already thought he was capable of that. What surprised the coaches was Moore’s ability to make perimeter shots and his willingness to offensive rebound.
“I couldn’t even tell [a lack of] conditioning was a factor,” Martin said of Moore’s high-energy performances in Italy. “Armani’s very crafty with the ball. He does a good job using his size. He can get guys on his hip and score. He’s also got the medium range pull-up jumper, and he can knock down 3-pointers.”
Martin hopes Moore can be a lockdown man defender, and also a disrupter at the top of a 1-3-1 zone if he chooses to unleash that on an unsuspecting opponent.