When the 2012-13 season concluded, Tennessee junior forward Jarnell Stokes faced a tough decision.
Should he declare for the NBA draft, or return to a potentially dangerous Volunteer squad in 2013-14?
Stokes saw the way this team was assembling, and suddenly, coming back was the obvious choice.
"That was my mindset: we can be a top team this year in the NCAA," Stokes said. "That is something I haven't been able to do in previous years."
On paper, the Memphis native boasted a NBA resume. He led the SEC with 16 double-doubles his sophomore year and posted the best offensive rebounding season in Tennessee history.
The burly forward averaged 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last season, garnering second team All-SEC honors — the same achievement he earned this preseason.
But after breaking down his performances from last year on tape, Stokes saw plenty to work on in his junior season.
"I watch film from last year, and I just feel embarrassed," Stokes said. "Because I played so slow. I played standing up.
"You know, I wasn't in a stance or anything at no point in the game. I was too tired to talk, too tired to give screens. So I definitely wanted to make sure I lose that weight and be ready to play and ready to lead."
The weight Stokes spoke of isn't just a few pounds. It was 15 — going on 20 — pounds he's trimmed from his stocky frame.
"I was about 273, 274, and right now I'm at like 258," Stokes added. "(Strength coach Nicodemus Christopher) wants me at 260, but I feel like I want to lose 3 or 4 more pounds and I'll probably do that playing at this speed."
When Stokes announced his return to UT in April, he noted criticism of his shooting skills as his biggest improvement to make. But heading into 2013-14, that's not all he's working on.
"I just wanted to increase my motor," Stokes said. "That's something I haven't had in previous years. I feel like I still need to work on a lot more stuff. I need to get in better shape."
In UT's Saturday exhibition opener against Florida Southern — his first appearance at the slimmed down weight — Stokes looked noticeably more agile and athletic. He showed an added burst of quickness en route to 27 points and 10 rebounds on 11-for-13 shooting, even putting in one of those elusive mid-range jumpers.Running a high-low post game with fifth-year senior Jeronne Maymon, who returns this season after missing all of last year with a knee injury, will help Stokes to add even more experience and expertise to his game.
"I might have been too young just to really study his game freshman year," Stokes said of his freshman season, the last he played with Maymon.Given that Stokes enrolled early and played his first season as a Vol during what should have been his senior year of high school, Maymon has noticed a night-and-day transformation from his fellow post presence.
"Jarnell has gotten really good at catching the ball and being patient, picking and choosing his spots, where to post in and everything like that," Maymon said. "His maturity level has really skyrocketed over the years, and it's going to be really good for us."The improvements across the board for Stokes, Maymon and the Vols are undeniable. But even more undeniable is UT's NCAA Tournament drought, which third-year head coach Cuonzo Martin has come within inches of quenching in his first two seasons.
From players to coaches to Vol faithful, the confidence levels have soared in Knoxville surrounding the Tennessee hoops program. But Stokes often reminds himself of the work that is left to be done.
"Guys are very confident right now, but I choose not to be confident," Stokes said. "The biggest thing about us is we're hungry. (We are) a bunch of guys who haven't truly felt the meaning of being a part of a NCAA Tournament run. We don't know how it feels to sit in the room on Selection Sunday with the cameras in our face.
"There's a lot of hunger going on in this room."