After weeks of speculation and rumors pointing in both directions, Jarnell Stokes has officially announced that he will return to Tennessee for his junior year, joining Jordan McRae, who announced two weeks ago that he would return for his senior season. Both Stokes and McRae had applied for evaluation for the NBA Draft, but neither were expected to be first round picks in 2013. Stokes cited advice from Cuonzo Martin and Tobias Harris, as well as practices with the rest of the Tennessee team, as key factors in his change of heart after an initial lean towards entering the draft.
Stokes' return, coupled with reports that Jeronne Maymon is playing with a level of explosiveness reminiscent of his junior season, should make Tennessee a heavy favorite to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. Tennessee was already in the early preseason top 25 rankings at both CBSSports.com and ESPN, and Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports Net tweeted:
Jarnell Stokes back to Tennessee. LOVE the Vols next year. Top three in SEC- possibly top 15 in the country. SOLID.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) April 27, 2013
Tennessee has signed 5* shooting guard Robert Hubbs, 3* point guard Darius Thompson, 3* forward A.J. Davis, 2* point guard Travon Landry, and unranked JUCO center Rawane Ndiaye, which had put them two players over the scholarship limit for next season, prompting weeks of speculation about which players would leave the program.
The first casualty was Yemi Makanjuola, who decided to transfer in the wake of accusations for attempted rape. While there was insufficient evidence to pursue formal charges, a Tennessee nursing student took out an order of protection against Makanjuola. We refrain from speculating about his guilt or lack of it, but if the accusations are true, Tennessee basketball is better for him leaving, and if they are false, Makanjuola personally could very well use a change of scenery. Cuonzo Martin said that Makanjuola is leaving on good terms and is respected by teammates and coaches but that a transfer was in the mutual best interests of Makanjuola and Tennessee.
Ndiaye, a very late commitment who also considered LSU and South Carolina, will be a like-for-like replacement for Makanjuola. He is also a junior and also big and athletic with little to offer on offense.
After Stokes' announcement, Brent Hubbs reported that it looks as though Travon Landry will not make it to campus, marking the second casualty for the prospective roster and keeping Tennessee from going over the scholarship limit. Landry had been committed to the Vols for more than a year but lost the starting job on his high school team and saw his stock fall precipitously. The commitment of Thompson last month appeared to confirm that Landry was not in Tennessee's plans for the future of the point guard position, and Hubbs' report just reinforces long-held suspicions by those who follow basketball recruiting.
All told, Tennessee's backcourt looks improved over last year, with Skylar McBee being replaced by one of the most talented prospects in the class and Darius Thompson expected to add depth at point guard. The starting frontcourt looks extremely strong with Stokes and Maymon providing a pair of all-SEC players, but depth will be a big concern. Unless Ndiaye or Davis can provide quality minutes immediately, the Vols will need to improvise whenever Stokes or Maymon are tired or in foul trouble, and will probably use a lot of the four-guard lineup we saw late this season.
Overall, Tennessee looks set up for a strong season, and for the first time in Cuonzo Martin's career, he will have the level of talent he needs to bring the Vols back to the level they had enjoyed for several years before his hire.