2012 NPT PHOTO BY SETH BUTLER Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin addresses the media at a Thursday press conference at the Vols annual media day.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
(Last modified: 2012-10-13 01:27:35)
 
Author: Seth Butler
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

KNOXVILLE-A year ago, the Tennessee basketball program had many uncertainties, unanswered questions, new faces and plenty of concerns.

To say the Vols took a total 180 in 12 months is an understatement.

Entering the 2012-13 season, the Vols' program now sees an almost total reversal from the scenario they faced a year ago.

Those uncertainties have turned into solid footing.

Questions now have answers.

New faces are now proven.

Those concerns have given way to an expectation to return to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.

"As far as our guys are concerned, I like where we are headed as a program," second-year Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin said at the team's preseason media day on Thursday. "I like what our guys are doing."

And why not?

After a season full of questions last year - the Vols laid the blueprint for their foundation last season.

Toughness, physical play and defense were the staples laid forth as Tennessee, predicted to finish next to last in the SEC, surprised everyone as the league's second best team.

Those same elements will again be called on to lead the Vols to their seventh NCAA berth in the last eight years.

"I think physical will always be a blueprint," Martin said. "You have to play physical without fouling. You have to play as hard as you can play."

The Vols will count on an imposing front line - led by the still-young Jarnell Stokes - to help instill their physical style of play. Stokes joined the Vols in January last year, fresh out of high school, and helped make an immediate impact during conference play.

While helping rally the Vols from a disastrous December, Stokes was still a raw talent that had much to improve on into his first full collegiate season. Stokes feels like he has found his game after half a season playing against some of the nation's best post players.

"I found myself," Stokes said. "Coming out of high school, a lot of guys haven't found themselves, but I think playing here, I found out that I love to post guys up and bully people in the paint."

Being able to make a transition from the high school ranks to college, was a striking difference for Stokes last year, who found action quickly after arriving in Knoxville.

It was also instrumental in helping to mature his game.

"Last year, I sort of wanted to be a face up forward - I was watching too many Carmelo Anthony highlights, but that's what guys do in high school," Stokes said. "I think my game has matured more, and I love to bully guys in the post and I've focused more on that.

"I can still step out and hit a shot or drive the ball if I need to," Stokes said.

His coach has also noticed his physical development, after an offseason with strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher, which will continue to improve his game.

"Jarnell is quicker, he made two great moves (Wednesday) off the dribble, moves he didn't make a year ago," Martin said. "That is just a credit to Nicodemus and Jarnell working together with his explosiveness and his quickness."

Stokes' development, along with that of Yemi Makanjuola and Kenny Hall - will help supplement some of the production Jeronne Maymon showed in dominating performances in the post a season ago.

It will also help the Vols chances in 2012-13, as they feature one of the best front lines in the nation.

"I think you have four physical guys who can play basketball," Martin said. "They're not just bodies, but they know how to play the game."

That knowledge will be crucial for them in big moments, especially as they contend for an SEC crown against the likes of Kentucky, Florida and Missouri.

"I expect those guys to score," Martin said. "In order for us to have a high level of success as a team, those guys have to touch the ball pretty much every time down in some shape or form."

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