December has not been good to Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee Vols. They are 0-2 for the month which brings their season record to 4-5. The worst blow came last Saturday in the form of a 74-70 loss to the previously 1-9 Austin Peay Governors. What has to be considered one of the worst losses in program history is no way to kick off the holiday season.
The fortunes and the future of the Tennessee basketball program may change in a dramatic way in the coming days. 5-star power forward Jarnell Stokes of Memphis is set to announce his decision on where he will be attending college as early as next week. The 6'8", 255 pounder is ranked as the 11th best player in the country and the 5th best power forward according to Rivals.com. The fact that he is considering Tennessee would be enough to excite the Volunteer faithful, but this isn't your typical basketball recruiting situation.
In November the TSSAA ruled Stokes ineligible for his senior season at Southwind High School. Stokes had played his first three high school seasons at Memphis Central but transfered to Southwind before his senior year. According to this article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Stokes family lives within Southwind school district but Jarnell attended Central on, "an academic exemption starting as a freshman." The CA article goes on to say, "In doing so, he also established his academic record at Central and did not meet any of the 10 TSSAA guidelines that would have allowed him to transfer and be eligible at Southwind this season." Stokes is reportedly an honors student.
So what is a 5-star recruit to do? Well, according to statements made by Stokes' father to the Rivals.com Kentucky site Cats Illustrated, Jarnell plans to graduate high school upon the completion of this current fall semester and enroll in college beginning in January. According to NCAA rules, Stokes would be eligible to play immediately. This means, of course, that some lucky basketball program will have the pleasure of adding one of the top recruits in the country to their roster at mid-season.
Who then are the real players in the Jarnell Stokes sweepstakes? You can never underestimate the power of the Memphis Tigers when it comes to their local basketball players. The tricky part for Josh Pastner's program is that they don't have an available scholarship for Stokes which means he would have to pay his own way in the spring before scholarship money could be freed up for him in the fall. This is certainly possible. With Stokes' good grades he could qualify for academic scholarship money and live at home so his expenses would be minimal. Kentucky has made a late push for Jarnell's services. Unfortunately for John Calipari, his team doesn't have an available scholarship either. The two teams who are rumored to be in the hunt who do have available scholarships are the Tennessee Vols and the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Stokes visited Knoxville for the Pittsburgh game on December 3rd. The students painted this message to Jarnell on "the rock".
If Stokes' Twitter account (@JarnellStokes) is any indication, he seemed to enjoy his visit. He tweeted the above picture a couple of times and interacted with Tobias Harris (@Tobias31) on Twitter while he was in Knoxville.
Of all the suitors, Tennessee perhaps offers Stokes the most immediate playing time and the biggest opportunity for an early impact.
It's hard to project the immediate impact that a player like Stokes would have upon the 2011-2012 season for the Vols. He would be the only 5-star on the current roster but his first college practices would be in the middle of the season when he would miss the benefit of the training camp type atmosphere that most freshman experience in September and October. I think there is little doubt he would receive immediate playing time and quite possibly start from day one. Whether or not that translates into wins for Tennessee is yet to be determined.
Keep your eyes out for developments in this Jarnell Stokes story. It could still go in a lot of different directions. If Cuonzo Martin finds a way to put Jarnell Stokes in the proverbial stocking of Tennessee fans, I think it is safe to say that the loss to Austin Peay will seem like a distant memory.