NEW ORLEANS — With all due respect to No. 1-ranked Kentucky, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy thinks there's another national story worth telling in the SEC.
Tennessee freshman forward Jarnell Stokes
"The story of Jarnell Stokes is really an amazing story, and I think it gets — because of what's happening in Lexington — I think it gets glossed over," Kennedy said at Wednesday's SEC men's basketball press conference at New Orleans Arena. "No time in my memory has anyone done what Jarnell Stokes has done.
"He was in high school, practices about a week, lines up against Kentucky and makes his first four shots, gets a double-double against UConn about a week later, and think about what he has done for the team.
"Think about what he would be if he was with them all year."
Tennessee's jumbo mid-term freshman enrollee will be ready and waiting for the winner of today's game (TV: MyVLT, 7:30 p.m.) between Kennedy's No. 7-seeded Rebels (18-12) and No. 10-seed Auburn (15-15).
The No. 2-seeded Vols (18-13) play the winner of the Ole Miss-Auburn game on Friday (TV: WVLT, 7:30 p.m.) in the quarterfinals.
The 6-foot-8, 270-pound Stokes, who signed with first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin after graduating from Memphis Southwind High School in December, was recently selected to the SEC All-Freshman team after averaging 9.1 points and 7.5 rebounds in 14 games.
The SEC coaches on UT's side of the bracket that were present in New Orleans Arena made it clear the impression Stokes has made goes beyond the numbers.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings wasn't on hand Wednesday; the No. 3-seed Commodores have a first-round bye and play the winner of the game between sixth-seeded Mississippi State (21-10) and 11th-seeded Georgia (14-16) Thursday night. But Stallings had to be impressed with Stokes' 11-point, 14-rebound, five-blocked shot effort in the Vols' regular season-ending 68-61 win over Vanderbilt last Saturday.
Auburn coach Tony Barbee saw Stokes score 11 points and grab four steals in UT's 64-49 win over the Tigers on Jan. 28 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
"It speaks to two things: (Stokes) level of talent, and he was obviously a highly-rated kid, and it also speaks to Cuonzo's ability to prepare him in a short period of time, that's a tough transition," Barbee said. "For him to be able to come in midseason and have the impact he's had, and to change the direction of Tennessee's season, it was amazing to watch."
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury didn't have to face Stokes when the Bulldogs beat UT 62-58 on Jan. 12. Stokes was sitting on the bench in Starkville, having arrived on the Knoxville campus just one week before.
"He's a terrific player, a big ol' wide body that can step out and score," Stansbury said. "He's been a great addition coming in January and being as effective as he has. Not just making the adjustment to basketball, but making the adjustment to college life."
Georgia coach Mark Fox, one of three coaches to see Stokes play twice against his team, said Stokes' physique has been key to his early effectiveness.
"The advantage he probably had was, most guys have to make the physical adjustment to play in the league, and with the body he has that probably was no adjustment at all," Fox said. "He was obviously much more comfortable the last few weeks than when we played him; he's somebody, under the circumstances, who was drastically going to improve because the more chances he's had to practice, the better he's going to play."
"Jarnell, obviously, could play college basketball from day one, and just from my own interaction with the kid — I don't want to speak for Cuonzo — but obviously he's very receptive," Kennedy said. "Obviously he's got a very good basketball IQ. You're not able to do what he's been able to do without that.
"So for Jarnell not to have games early that he can learn and play through, for him to do it at this level right from the jump, is amazing," he said. "And I think it's a story the nation needs to know simple because it's, in my lifetime, I can't remember a kid ever coming in and having the success and his personal success transcending his team as dramatically as this kid has."