Jarnell Stokes has many great qualities. But my favorite among the early returns is the way he grins like a ten year old trying not to grin almost every time he scores.
Seriously, watch the highlights from Saturday's win over UConn. Stokes looks all business as usual after his first two baskets, but once he starts taking over, he can't help himself. It's like he can't believe this is all really happening this fast. It's okay, we can't believe it either. You want to say act like you've been there before...but he hasn't. And neither have we.
We've won before, sure - the last six years will attest to that. But the way these wins are coming is completely new. It's what we heard and hoped we would get from Cuonzo Martin...but this soon against these teams? After the month of December we had around here? Almost all of us were ready to chalk this year up to the reset button and look forward to 2013. In our poll on January 6 - just seventeen days ago - the leading prediction for Tennessee's SEC record was "4-12 or worse". If I had made 3-13 an option, it might have been even darker. And hey, I ranked them 11th out of 12 in the same post, the exact same spot the media put them in during the preseason. The Vols looked the part.
In the last seventeen days, Tennessee is just 2-3. But it looks - and boy, does it feel - like everything has changed.
Back in Maui, the Vols almost beat Memphis playing a version of the Bruce Pearl basketball they knew (mandatory note: Pearl remains the most successful coach in the history of the program. This is not a condemnation of his coaching style. You can love Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin. I promise. You can.) Jeronne Maymon almost beat them by himself as the game raced into the 90s in double overtime. Memphis shot 51.4% from the floor that day, enough to beat the Vols by a deuce. But it gave us hope that maybe the Vols could keep pace playing the same old basketball: up tempo, lots of threes and athletes, little discipline.
By the time the Memphis rematch rolled around, the Vols were 7-6 with losses to Oakland, Charleston, and Austin Peay. And in the second half on Beale Street, Memphis excelled at the Bruce Pearl brand of basketball, and Tennessee was left in the dust. The Tigers didn't even shoot as well in the rematch - 47.4% - but it was more than enough, because on the other end of the floor the Vols went 5 of 21 from the arc and turned the ball over 15 times. Memphis turned it over 16 times...and still won by 18.
You rarely see the switch truly flip in sports. We talk about it all the time because we want to believe it can happen, but it's an illusion more often than not. You may notice a trend developing as it happens, or see a young team naturally mature and progress, but it's very rare to see a team that was, in its core identity, one way one day and completely different the next.
So it is with great appreciation and admiration that I say that whatever happened between Memphis and Florida absolutely flipped the switch for this team, and changed the course of the season and the early stages of the Cuonzo Martin era.
Here are Tennessee's defensive numbers:
- First 14 games: 69.5 ppg allowed, 352 of 801 FG (43.9%), 83 of 224 3PT (37.0%), 11.7 turnovers per game
- Last 5 games: 59.4 ppg allowed, 105 of 273 FG (38.4%), 22 of 80 3PT (27.5%), 12.8 turnovers per game