Kentucky faces Tennessee team picking up steam behind big-man Stokes

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 14, 2013 

Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel looked to pass over Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes on Tuesday. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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    No. 25 Kentucky at Tennessee

    When: Saturday, 1 p.m. (CBS-27)

As Kentucky reels from the sudden loss of star Nerlens Noel, Tennessee comes into Saturday's game on a roll.

"We're doing well," point guard Trae Golden said Thursday. "... Right now, we're just riding that momentum. We're just playing with a lot of swagger, right now."

Tennessee won at South Carolina and Vanderbilt within the past week. That gave the Volunteers five victories in the last eight games.

In another contrast to Kentucky, Tennessee's star front-court player leads the way. Jarnell Stokes has posted six straight double-doubles. In that span, he's averaged 17.5 points and 11.7 rebounds.

"He's on a huge roll," Golden said. "I always tell him I think he's the best big man in the country."

As Noel was central to Kentucky's game, so Stokes is UT's main man. The difference is Noel made his most dramatic impact as a defender. Stokes makes his mark as a scorer and rebounder (his 18 rebounds against Alabama equaled the most by any Southeastern Conference player this season).

"We run our offense through him, night in and night out," Golden said. "We're going to make sure we get him the ball."

Golden, who watched replays of Noel tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament at Florida on Tuesday, wished the UK player well. "That's tough, especially for a guy like him whose future is as bright as it is," the UT guard said. "I feel bad for him, but I know he'll recover."

Golden deflected a question about how a serious injury to Stokes might affect the Vols.

"We understand injuries happen," he said before adding, "I don't know where we'd be. We're not thinking about that. We just have to keep moving forward."

To explain Stokes' surge, Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin cited nothing more exotic than effort.

"He's really been playing a lot harder," Martin said a week ago. "That starts in practice. He's really improved his work ethic in practice."

Noel was exactly the type of defender that troubled Stokes. At a listed 6-foot-8, the UT player used brawn and strength. But Stokes, once referred to as "Wes Unseld Jr.," had trouble getting his shot over a taller, agile player.

That's no longer as true. Martin cited Stokes' growing ability to score facing the basket and counter an approaching defender by driving to the basket.

Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings was convinced even before Stokes scored 17 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked five shots against the Commodores on Wednesday.

"He's playing like a first-round draft pick right now," Stallings said Monday. "He's playing like an absolute stud.

"I'm not sure how to defend him. He hurts you when you send double teams at him. He destroys you if you play him one-on-one. Maybe you need to send three (defenders). I'm not sure."

No sellout yet

As of late Thursday afternoon, the UK-UT game had not yet sold out.

Tennessee planned to recognize Ray Mears' first Tennessee team — the 1962-63 team. It's the 50th anniversary of Mears' first season at UT.

Tennessee is also giving "rally towels" to the first 1,000 students who enter Thompson-Boling Arena.


NEXT GAME

No. 25 Kentucky at Tennessee

When: Saturday, 1 p.m. (CBS-27)

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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