The last time Tennessee's 6-foot-8, 270-pound "double-double machine" played Kentucky, he had to contend with Nerlens Noel, 24,000 hostile fans and the so-called Rupperees.
Sophomore Jarnell Stokes will face none of the above in today's rematch. That gives the Vols (13-10 overall, 5-6 SEC) a fighting chance at knocking off the No. 25 Wildcats (17-7, 8-3) when the teams collide at 1:05 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Noel, who leads the NCAA with 106 blocked shots, tore an ACL earlier this week and is out for the season. The 6-foot-10 freshman, projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, burned Tennessee for 12 points, 9 rebounds and 6 blocks Jan. 15 as the Big Blue beat the Big Orange 75-65 in Lexington. His absence could have a major impact on today's rematch.
"He's the best shot-blocker in college basketball, period," said Stokes, who had a couple of his attempts rejected by Noel in the earlier meeting. "If you take that away it changes their team, but they still have a good player in Willie Caulie-Stein, who's 7-feet tall."
Caulie-Stein is no Noel, however, which weighs in Stokes' favor. So does the fact today's game isn't being played at Rupp Arena. The fans are so rowdy there that even veteran officials tend to become "Rupperees" and give the home team most of the close calls.
In the Jan. 15 game at Lexington Stokes was whistled for two early fouls and spent the last 4:29 of the half on the Vol bench. He played just 79 seconds of the second half before going to the bench with foul No. 3. He returned to the floor following a five-minute absence, only to pick up his fourth foul within a minute. After sitting out from 12:25 to 6:47, he returned to action when his backup, Yemi Makanjuola, fouled out after just 14 minutes of court time. Stokes managed to play five minutes before fouling out with 1:37 to go. He finished with 4 points and 5 rebounds in just 16 minutes.
"I had two early fouls in that game," he recalled, "and I think that sort of threw off the rhythm. I'm looking forward to the next game."
Without Noel to block his shots and without a hostile Rupp crowd to intimidate the officials, Stokes has a realistic shot at extending his amazing string of double-double games to seven. He pushed it to six with a 17-point, 10-rebound effort Wednesday night at Vanderbilt.
Asked to explain the run of double-doubles, Stokes smiled.
"I'm not taking any plays off; I think that's been the biggest thing," he said. "I'm just getting back to who I am as a player, as far as being patient. I'm not trying to make quicker moves than I usually make. I'm just taking my time, and that has really helped."
Vol junior Jordan McRae has noticed another difference in Stokes the past few weeks.
"He's hitting his free throws now, so his confidence is up," McRae said. "He's demanding the ball more now. For us to move forward, that's what we need for him to do."
Given how little he impacted the earlier game in Lexington, Stokes was asked if he feels the need to prove anything in the rematch.
"Not really," he said. "At the end of the day, I just want to win the game. If I have to play good for us to do that, then that's what I'm going to do."
Even without Noel, Kentucky is loaded with gifted, five-star players. That means the Vols may be unable to beat the Cats without another double-double from Stokes. He'd love to provide one.
"It means a lot," he said. "So many good players that are my height, such as Zach Randolph and Kevin Love, made a living off of double-doubles. To be called a double-double machine means a lot to me."
GAME NOTES: McRae gave Noel a powerful endorsement this week, noting: "Even when he's not going to block your shot, you think he is, so he affects the game in some kind of way every time down." ... Today will be Tennessee's third game this season against a ranked opponent. The Vols lost 37-36 at No. 20 Georgetown on Nov. 30 and beat No. 23 Wichita State 69-60 in Knoxville on Dec. 13. Counting a 3-6 record in 2011-12, Cuonzo Martin stands 4-7 versus ranked teams as Tennessee's head coach.... Kyle Wiltjer came off the bench to lead Kentucky scorers with 17 points in the Jan. 15 meeting with Tennessee. McRae led the Big Orange with 23 points that evening.... The Vols' Trae Golden is averaging 14.0 points per contest in the two games he has played since returning from a strained hamstring.... This season marks the 50th anniversary of Ray Mears' first Tennessee team, the 1962-63 squad. Members of that team will be recognized this afternoon.... Today's game is the only one on the 2012-13 Vol schedule to be televised by CBS. Tennessee played one game on CBS last season, beating UConn 60-57. The Huskies were coming off a national title the previous year, just as Kentucky is this year. Tennessee is 7-3 in its last 10 games against defending national champs.