UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky's Kidd-Gilchrist, Tennessee's Stokes key to teams' starts

Tennessee freshman Jarnell Stokes, left, and the Volunteers face Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Wildcats tonight in Rupp Arena.
Tennessee freshman Jarnell Stokes, left, and the Volunteers face Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Wildcats tonight in Rupp Arena.

Possessing a spark off the bench is a luxury Kentucky and Tennessee cannot afford. So UK and UT will ask freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jarnell Stokes, respectively, to impact Tuesday night's game in Rupp Arena from the opening tap.

Kidd-Gilchrist, who played a significant role in UK's victory at LSU on Saturday without making a basket, seems ideally suited to supply whatever spark might be needed. Scoring. Defending. Rebounding. Setting a go-get-'em tone.

But after coming off the bench for one exhibition game, Kidd-Gilchrist became a starter.

"You've got to start (the game) defending," UK Coach John Calipari said Monday of quickly deciding to use Kidd-Gilchrist as a starter. "You can't start a game where (opponents) just come down and do what they want."

Kidd-Gilchrist's versatility makes him a Swiss Army knife of a defender. Thus, it hardly matters around which player an opponent revolves its offense. A smooth, confident-building start is less likely.

"I can put him on anybody I want to put him on," Calipari said. "I can put him on 1-2-3-4 (every position but center), if that guy is hurting us. And that's why he's so valuable."

Although Terrence Jones scored a season-high 27 points at LSU, Calipari alerted reporters not to overlook Kidd-Gilchrist.

"Michael still may have been the best player on the court, and he gets one point," the UK coach said. " ... You can't say, 'Well, my best player, I'm going to have him come off the bench.' This guy is doing the things he's doing. He's got to be on that court."

Besides grabbing eight rebounds and equalling his personal Southeastern Conference high of four assists, Kidd-Gilchrist also headed the UK defense that contained LSU point guard Anthony Hickey.

"Guys like that don't get enough credit," LSU Coach Trent Johnson said of Kidd-Gilchrist. " ... Because they impact winning without scoring. ...

"If you ask any coach in the country, all would die to have one or two guys like that. That's what their thing is about. He's special. He's special. He ain't a freshman."

Kidd-Gilchrist seems to embody the kind of tough-mindedness that first-year Coach Cuonzo Martin is trying to make synonymous with Tennessee basketball.

When this thought was suggested to Martin on the SEC coaches' teleconference Monday, he chuckled knowingly and noted how he watched Kidd-Gilchrist play on the AAU circuit.

"One thing he did: He played hard," Martin said before explaining why he chuckled. "And that seems like a skill nowadays, when a guy plays hard. You don't see it as much. He plays with a passion and an excitement. He's smiling out there."

Like a shark, presumably.

Martin noted how Kidd-Gilchrist presents a difficult matchup as a 6-foot-7 player who can contribute along the perimeter or around the basket.

Jones noted that size in trying to explain why Kidd-Gilchrist is ranked among the SEC's top 10 rebounders with an in-league average of 7.1.

"He's real long," Jones said. "He's active at his position. I don't think guys at his position are as active as him."

Although Calipari has cited Kidd-Gilchrist as an example for teammates to follow, the UK coach offered an area that needs improvement.

"What makes me mad about him (is) he fouls," Calipari said. "He gets 30 feet from the basket, and then a body foul. I say, 'You don't need to block any shots. Just body the guy up and let (teammates like Anthony Davis and Jones) block them.' "

Stokes, who graduated from high school in December and turned 18 on Jan. 7, made his college debut against Kentucky earlier this month. After two weeks as a reserve, he became a starter. His first start — against UConn on Jan. 21 — produced a double-double: 16 points and 12 rebounds.

When asked about starting Stokes, Martin said, "It was the right time. I felt it was the right thing to do because of his presence around the basket."

Tennessee measures Stokes' presence as 6-8, 250.

In the first game against Kentucky, Stokes scored within a minute of entering the game in each half. He finished with nine points and four rebounds in 17 minutes.

"I don't think he really made that big an impact," Jones said.

Still, as with Kentucky and Kidd-Gilchrist, Stokes' potential impact is something Tennessee feels it needs from the start.

"Physical stature, being aggressive, looking to score the ball," Martin said. " ... Trying to make plays. Also a presence that demands double-teams around the rim. You can feed off that activity."

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