UK Men's Basketball

Bruising Tennessee duo face tall task against Kentucky

Tennessee big man Jarnell Stokes rolled a layup off his fingers around Auburn's Asauhn Dixon-Tatum.
Tennessee big man Jarnell Stokes rolled a layup off his fingers around Auburn's Asauhn Dixon-Tatum. AP

The two starting big men evoke the nickname "Bruise Brothers." One was once called "Wes Unseld Jr." Conclusion: There should be little doubt about team identity.

Inside scoring and rebounding are foundational pieces to Tennessee basketball. When UT Coach Cuonzo Martin lamented the lack of inside scoring in a loss to Texas A&M last week, it was not an offhand comment. He meant it.

"That's who we are," he said.

Tennessee's muscle is Jarnell Stokes (once called Wes Unseld Jr. by an admiring Trent Johnson, the former LSU coach) and Jeronne Maymon, who sat out last season as he recovered from major surgery to his left knee.

UT lists each at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds. Each is counted upon to score and, perhaps more importantly, rebound around the basket. Each provides a physical presence.

"I don't know whose screen is worse (to run into)," said Jordan McRae, a willowy wing who leads the Vols in scoring (18.4 points per game). "Either one you try to avoid."

The Kentucky-Tennessee game on Saturday figures to be a competition of like-minded teams. Each can shoot from the perimeter, but each depends on its "bigs" to make the critical difference.

In that sense, Kentucky's loss at Arkansas on Tuesday was an aberration. Until then, the Cats' only three losses had come in games in which they were outscored in the paint: to Michigan State (44-40), Baylor (38-26) and North Carolina (38-34).

Kentucky crushed Arkansas around the basket: 42-26 in points in the paint and 50-32 in rebounding. But 17 turnovers and Arkansas' 14 offensive rebounds (including the memorable 14th by Michael Qualls) proved decisive.

Similarly, Tennessee had more points from the paint in victories over Auburn and LSU, but only managed to stay even (22-22) with A&M. As for rebounding (UT ranked 10th nationally in rebound margin going into this week), Martin noted Stokes grabbed only one rebound the entire second half against the Aggies.

In his no-nonsense rumble of a voice, Martin said of Stokes, "He should get five or six rebounds on the offensive side each half."

Stokes, who turned 20 on Jan. 7, comes close to that most games. His eight double-doubles this season include poundings of Auburn (14 points, 14 rebounds) and LSU (15 and 15). In 66 college games, he's had 26 double-doubles.

Maymon (whose name is pronounced jur-ON MAY-min), averages 10.8 points and 8.4 rebounds. Martin concedes that television announcers are correct to note that Maymon is not as explosive as he was before knee surgery.

"He doesn't have the lift he used to," Martin said. "That's for anybody who has (major knee) surgery."

Martin, a tough guy for Gene Keady at Purdue in his playing days, said he overcame four surgeries. "I didn't have the lift I had," he said. "But he's still a good basketball player. His game is not so much based on his lift."

When asked  why Stokes and Maymon are so productive, Martin spoke of the versatility that allows each to stay out of the other's way.

"Both can play with his back to the basket," the UT coach said. "They can also face up and make a move off the dribble. They can pass the ball. That's what makes them hard to guard. In the high-low (alignment), both can pass, dribble and make decisions."

What is less assured is how Stokes and Maymon can handle taller defenders such as the many Kentucky possesses: Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. Plus, Alex Poythress is no lightweight at 6-8, 239.

In past games against Kentucky, neither Stokes nor Maymon has put up big numbers. Stokes has made 11 of 29 shots while averaging 6.5 points and 6.0 rebounds. Maymon averaged 14 points and 6.5 rebounds against the Cats in 2011-12.

Martin did not embrace the notion, voiced by McRae, that sitting out last season enabled Maymon to improve as a perimeter shooter.

"I don't want him getting consumed with jump shots," the Tennessee coach said.

Martin wants the opposition consumed by play around the basket.

"For us to be successful, the ball has to go around that rim in some shape or form," he said.