KNOXVILLE — After Tennessee’s second early bow-out in the NIT in as many years on Wednesday night, sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes was asked whether, so soon after the Vols had been snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, it was difficult to play in a lesser tournament.
“We were disappointed by the NCAA, but it wasn’t tough for me,” Stokes said. “I love playing basketball, so I wanted to come out and play hard.”
One look at the box score of the Vols’ 75-67 loss to Mercer was enough to see that Stokes was in the minority on his own team. Don’t be fooled by point guard Trae Golden’s 20 points, many of which came after the outcome was all but decided. While his teammates looked like they were more concerned about their spring break escapes, Stokes turned in what might be described as a typical performance during the season’s last three months—14 points and 13 rebounds—except for the fact that 12 of those boards were on the offensive end.
Twelve offensive rebounds? An offensive rebound is the ultimate hustle stat, and for Stokes to corral a dozen of them indicates that he indeed was ready to play and advance in the NIT. Alas, no one appeared to be with him.
And so for the second consecutive year under coach Cuonzo Martin, the Vols started slow, rallied with an impressive February winning streak to the brink of earning an NCAA at-large bid, tossed it away with a second-round loss in the SEC Tournament and then pretty much no-showed in the NIT. The loss to Mercer—a good and well-coached team that had already won at Florida State and Alabama this season—had the same look, feel, and smell, of last season’s NIT game against Middle Tennessee.
In other words, the Vols were thoroughly outclassed by a team that, given earlier wins over Kentucky, Florida and Missouri, had no business being on the same floor with them.
The consecutive NIT flameouts beg this question: What must the Vols do to break on through to the other side, i.e. the NCAAs? A few suggestions:
• Stokes needs to stay in school and resist the urge to toss his name into the NBA draft. You’re not ready, big fella. As dominant as you sometimes were after SEC play began, you’re not ready. Figure out how to score over length, become a 75-percent free-throw shooter and a more consistent defender, and then, maybe.
• Ditto for Jordan McRae. Some folks who obviously don’t understand how the NBA selects its players have posited that McRae might think about turning pro. If he does that, he’ll be a pro alright—in Belgium, or Turkey or some other remote outpost far removed from the NBA. McRae has to get stronger, become a more consistent jump shooter and figure out how to cut down on his turnovers.
• Jeronne Maymon and his balky knee need to come back healthy. There’s no understating what the loss of Maymon did to this team. Take any team’s best player away and there’s bound to be an adverse effect. To Martin’s credit, he didn’t bemoan the loss of Stokes, at least not publicly, but it was devastating, especially given that Maymon’s skill set—he’s a four man who can pass from the high post, scoring facing up and even dribble up court against pressure—are so vital to Martin’s system.
After Stokes’ maturation into a double-double machine—he leads the SEC with 16 of them—and Maymon’s own penchant for boards (remember his 20 and 19-rebound efforts last season?), no one will outrebound the Vols next season.
• Trae Golden has to bring it every night. He can be as good as any point guard in the SEC one game and look like he doesn’t deserve a Division I scholarship the next. So what do the Vols need from him? It’s simple. Defend your position. Attack the rim. Everything else will take care of itself.
• The Vols have got to get more firepower. Too many scholarships have been wasted on long, athletic players who project to be good defenders but can’t throw it in the ocean. Defense is easier to teach than shooting mechanics. When Skylar McBee tore a ligament in his shooting arm against Georgetown—and that was way back in November—the Vols lost their only consistent perimeter threat. Neither McBee nor Martin mentioned it much, but in some ways, the loss of McBee’s touch was as crippling as the loss of Maymon.
Tennessee has to have more guys who can jump up and extend a lead, or ignite a comeback, with a flick of their wrist. Remember how tough the Vols were when they had Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, two assassins from 3? Too many games the last two years have devolved into grind-it-out defensive struggles. Why? Tennessee had no pure shooters.
The arrival of five-star recruit Robert Hubbs will help, and if everything else mentioned above this final sentence comes to pass, Martin and the Vols won’t have to suffer the embarrassment of losing to a mid-major in the NIT on their home court next season, because they’ll be in the NCAAs.