Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes has an ambitious approach to rebounding: Every time the ball comes off the rim, he believes it belongs to him.
"It's crazy, the 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore said this week. "I feel that way on every rebound I go after. I feel like the ball is right there (waiting for him to claim it)."
Lately, he has been right more often than not. Stokes posted double-digit rebounds in nine of Tennessee's last 10 games, falling one short Feb. 16 against Kentucky. He recorded 16 one week ago at Texas A&M and followed with 14 in Tuesday night's upset of No. 8 Florida. His average of 9.2 per game leads the SEC and is on pace to be the highest mark by a Vol since 7-footer Steve Hamer averaged 9.4 way back in 1996.
Stokes' backboard brilliance has been a major factor in the six-game winning streak Tennessee carries into this afternoon's 1:30 tipoff at Georgia.
Interestingly enough, the Vols' last loss was a 68-62 home-floor debacle against the Bulldogs on Feb. 6. Stokes, who posted 16 points and 11 rebounds that night, should've sued his teammates for non-support. With Tennessee's guards making just 3 of 11 shots from 3-point range, Georgia smothered Stokes, limiting him to six field-goal attempts.
Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin switched to a four-guard lineup shortly thereafter, however, and the impact was obvious. The ball-handling and perimeter defense improved dramatically as Tennessee swept its next six games. Stokes believes another byproduct of the four-guard lineup has been even more critical in the recent surge.
"After the Georgia game guys started making shots," he said. "When you make shots that gives you more momentum to play defense. Now we're pushing the ball in transition. I think just making shots has really helped us."
Stokes' talent for getting offensive rebounds has helped, too. He grabbed eight each against Alabama and Texas A&M, seven and six in two meetings with Vanderbilt, six against Florida, five each against Mississippi State and South Carolina. Given the struggles Vol guards have had getting him touches, Stokes' knack for scoring off put-backs has been a godsend.
"It's helped me a lot," he conceded. "Just going after every rebound ... that's my mindset. I don't need the ball every time down the court. I leave the scoring up to guys like Jordan (McRae) and Trae (Golden). But when I've got a matchup (advantage), that's when I really demand the ball."
Stokes' biggest offensive rebound of the season came Tuesday night. After back-to-back Florida buckets trimmed an eight-point deficit to four, Stokes outmuscled two Gators for a putback that produced a three-point play and a seven-point lead with 54.5 seconds left. It was a big-boy rebound, for sure.
"Jarnell's a big boy," McRae said with a smile, "so those are the kind of rebounds we expect him to get."
Being the only "big" in a four-guard lineup has its challenges, of course. Seeing himself surrounded by perimeter players, Stokes knows there's extra pressure on him to control the backboards.
"Definitely," he said. "They depend on me a lot in the rebounding role. But guys like Jordan and Josh (Richardson) and Armani (Moore) and Trae always come up with five or six rebounds throughout the game, so that helps a lot."
Stokes faced two of the NCAA's premier inside players in the past 11 days — LSU's Johnny O'Bryant and Florida's Patric Young. The rugged Vol proved his mettle by putting up 13 points and 11 rebounds against the former, 8 points and 14 rebounds against the latter.
Notably, Stokes missed some action after picking up two first-half fouls each time. Still, he managed to play aggressively, not tentatively, when he returned to the floor. That wasn't the case in November, December and January.
"Yeah," he conceded. "Earlier in the season two fouls early would have me looking at the sideline and saying, 'Man, this is crazy.' I would get so frustrated. Now I'm used to getting two early fouls. Plus, our guards are playing better and making shots, so it (foul trouble) really doesn't take away anything much."
GAME NOTES: During its six-game winning streak Tennessee has shot 46.6 percent from the field and 42.5 percent from 3-point range en route to outscoring its opponents by 11.8 points per game.... Among teams from the six major conferences, only Georgetown's 10-game winning streak is longer than Tennessee's six-game run.... The Vols have beaten Georgia 15 times in the last 20 meetings.... After losing its first six road games of 2012-13, Tennessee has swept its last three. A win today would give the Vols their first four-game SEC road winning streak since 2008.... Four Tennessee players grew up in Georgia — Golden (Powder Springs), McRae (Midway), Moore (Kennesaw) and Kenny Hall (Stone Mountain). They have combined to produce 51.4 percent of Tennessee's points and 62.0 percent of the Vols' assists this season.... Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit nine of 12 shots and scored a game-high 24 points in the earlier meeting with Tennessee.... The Vols bring a 17-10 overall record and a 9-6 SEC mark into today's game. Georgia is 13-15 and 7-8.... This contest can be viewed on the SEC Network.