A coach’s post-game comments are easily dismissed, after both wins and losses. But Billy Donovan’s take on Tennessee has become more prophetic with each NCAA tournament game.
The Florida coach speculated on Tennessee’s great postseason potential after the Gators defeated the Vols for the third time, in the semifinals of the SEC tournament two weeks ago.
More specifically, he said teams would be surprised at how difficult it is to claim a rebound when Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are in the immediate vicinity.
Mercer wouldn’t argue. It had 21 rebounds in UT’s 83-63 victory third-round victory last Sunday; Stokes and Maymon had 26, including 18 by Stokes.
Michigan might not be as disadvantaged in that regard Friday night when it takes on the Vols in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. But it ranks eighth in the Big Ten in rebounding and was outrebounded by 11 in a third-round tournament victory over Texas.
Such statistics make you think the Wolverines will be hard-pressed to contend with Maymon and Stokes. Especially Stokes.
The longer you watch this tournament, you realize it’s easier to find a hot 3-point shooter than a player who can impact a game near the basket the way Stokes has.
He is averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds per game in the tournament. He also has made 86.2 percent of his free throws.
A relentless rebounder who can make free throws: How could the NBA not notice?
Before the season, Stokes didn’t look like an NBA player. Never mind that he already had established his rebounding prowess or that he’s 6-foot-8, 260 pounds. He’s no leaper, has no semblance of an outside game and has struggled defensively.
He looks different now. He’s a better defender, a better passer, and his shooting touch has improved around the basket and at the foul line.
Combine that with his head-turning play on college basketball’s post-season stage and you might assume this tournament will serve as the junior forward’s college farewell.
It shouldn’t, though. Unless Stokes is convinced he will be drafted in the first round — and there’s no mock-draft evidence to indicate that — he should return to Tennessee for his senior season.
As a rule, I wouldn’t advise anyone to turn down money, unless it comes with possible jail time attached. However, there’s a big difference in being drafted into the NBA and making it in the NBA. And ultimately, Stokes might have an opportunity to make more money by staying than leaving.
Remember: he started college early. He won’t turn 21 until next January.
Also, when you weigh how much Stokes has improved from his sophomore season through his junior year, who’s to say he has peaked? Imagine how much he could further enhance his pro potential by extending his shooting range (and his free-throw percentage indicates he could).
Sure, there’s always the risk of injury. But the way Stokes is built, there’s a greater chance he will injure someone else.
If nothing else, he can wear you out just grappling for position in the lane, where Tennessee opponents also are assured of bumping into Maymon, another 6-8, 260-pounder.
They are two huge reasons why the Vols aren’t as big of an underdog in this regional as their No. 11 seeding would suggest.
But even if Tennessee makes it all the way to the Final Four, Stokes’ college career shouldn’t end there.