Vols collecting impressive wins, building March Madness rÃ©sumÃ©
If Vols' fans had lost hope that they may not see their Tennessee men's basketball team make an appearance in the NCAA tournament, now may be the time to swing that perspective.
The Tennessee Vols have won six straight games including a 30-point win over No. 25 Kentucky on Feb. 16 and shocking No. 8 Florida 64-58 on Tuesday night inside Thompson-Bowling Arena in Knoxville. The streak also includes the Vols' longest game in school history, a quadruple overtime game against Texas A&M on Feb. 23 that Tennessee endured for the victory.
Sophomore standout Jarnell Stokes can bask in the majority of this glory. The 6'8," 270-pound forward is beginning to become a low-post presence that teams are finding difficult to cover and especially box out. Stokes is almost a walking double-double, averaging 12.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest, so far he has tallied 35 blocks this season.
The Memphis native had a streak of six straight double-doubles in SEC play, which is the longest such streak going back to when Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins, who is now playing in the NBA for the Sacremento Kings, posted seven in a row in 2010. That streak ended Tuesday night against the Gators when Stokes only scored eight points. While he failed to extend his double-double streak, Stokes led all players with 14 rebounds leading the Vols to a 41-31 rebounding edge over the Gators.
Stokes' 14 rebounds doesn't show the full effort and exertion that Stokes displayed in the Vols' victory against the Gators. At one point while manning the low post by his lonesome, Stokes wrestled three Gators to recover three straight offensive rebounds before finally getting a basket to drop.
Junior Trae Golden has also been a huge contributor to the Vols' recent success. The reigning SEC player of the week only scored eight points in Tuesday's contest, but in wins over the Texas A&M and LSU, the Georgia native averaged 26 points and six assists. What Golden's stat line does not show is his leadership abilities.
Golden began the season a starter, but for the majority of games he has come off the bench to provide some assistance for the Vols second line. That transition has done little to dampen his competitive spirit. When UT's games come down to the wire, Golden will be the player you will see step into the "closer" role.
In a victory over South Carolina in early February, Golden hit four of eight shots and converted 8 of 10 free throws in the second half of a UT come-from-behind victory. In Tuesday's contest, he delivered a tough layup with 15 minutes to go that gave the Vols the lead for the remainder of the game.
"I don't think we come out of here alive without Trae Golden," UT head coach Cuonzo Martin said after the South Carolina game applauding Golden's effort.
Another player that cannot be forgotten is guard Jordan McRae. McRae is the offensive component that makes this UT team a possible contender for the NCAA tournament, should the committee decide the Vols deserve admission into the field of 68. While Stokes provides the Vols with a defensive presence; on most nights McRae can be seen flushing the basket. The junior scored a career-high 34 points against LSU, 23 points against Texas A&M, and 27 against UF.
The Vols play three more games, two on the road against Georgia and Auburn and their final game of the season is at home against SEC newcomer Missouri, before entering the SEC tournament. The Vols are currently ranked fifth in the SEC and eyeing an NCAA birth. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Vols squarely on the bubble with the final three games being extremely important to their chances of making the field.
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