The way he sees it, Jarnell Stokes is making up for lost time.
After Tennessee was relegated to the NIT in his first two college seasons, Stokes is doing his part to extend the Vols' run in the NCAA Tournament.
"As a basketball player, you come to college expecting to be in the NCAA Tournament every year," he said. "When that doesn't happen, you feel like you're missing out on something. When you get the chance, you want to do everything you can to keep playing."
Three games in, Stokes' performance in the NCAAs is among the best in Tennessee history. His gaudy stats — 20.3 points and 15.0 rebounds per game — reflect his impact on Tennessee's success in March.
"The way he's playing in the tournament, I don't think anybody can handle him one-on-one," Vols guard Antonio Barton said. "You just get him the ball and get out of his way."
Stokes said he is "just trying to get more involved and do my job."
The Tennessean columnist David Climer joins WBIR sports director Nick Carboni to talk about the Vols trip to the Sweet 16. Nick Carboni
While Josh Richardson has been the X-factor for the Vols because of his offensive production — a 19.3-point average in three tournament games compared to 9.2 in the regular season — Stokes has been the anchor. He has elevated his game when the Vols needed it most. His five assists in the Mercer game raised some eyebrows.
"They have a lot of good players, but everything they do goes through Stokes," Mercer center Daniel Coursey said after UT's victory. "One thing that surprised me was how good a passer he is. He sees the court and gets the ball to the open man."
Stokes is also one of the biggest reasons the Vols have outscored their three tournament opponents 72-28 at the free throw line. Stokes has made 25 of 29 foul shots.
"I feel like Jarnell gets fouled every time down there. I really do," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. "… Because he is so big and his lower body is so strong, if you don't move him, sometimes they don't make the calls. In the NCAA Tournament, the calls are being made more so than in other settings."
Stokes is playing at a level seldom seen by a Vol in the NCAA Tournament. Although he has not hit a shot at the buzzer to win a tournament game like Chris Lofton (2006 vs. Winthrop) or Dale Ellis (1981 vs. VCU), Stokes' impact on UT's three wins as been profound. His numbers are among the most impressive ever by a Vol in the NCAAs.
For my money, UT's best player in NCAA Tournament history was Ernie Grunfeld. He played in only two games, but he was remarkable, averaging 31 points and 10 rebounds.
As a junior in 1976, Grunfeld moved from the wing to the post after teammate Bernard King suffered a thumb injury in a freak practice mishap, and he scored 36 points in a loss to VMI. As a senior in '77, Grunfeld had 26 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out in overtime.
There have been other big-time performances in UT's 20 all-time NCAA Tournament berths. Rod Widby averaged 21.5 points in two games in 1967, the first year the Vols made the tournament. Reggie Johnson checked in at 19.8 points and 8.4 rebounds. Ellis put up good numbers (14.5 points, 5.4 rebounds), as did Wayne Chism (12.4 points, 5.2 rebounds).
As for Stokes, his NCAA Tournament legacy is ongoing. The Vols face No. 2 seed Michigan in the Midwest Regional semifinals on Friday in Indianapolis.
In the spotlight of March Madness, Stokes has found his voice. He has gone out of his way to defend Martin, placing him under the heading "genuine coaches" in describing him as someone whose impact on his players goes beyond what happens in practice and in games.
"You know, genuine coaches don't get a lot of credit," Stokes said. "… He teaches us about things off the court that don't even apply to basketball. I'm mature enough to understand that he has our best interests at heart."
While Stokes dismissed the Cinderella label ("I wouldn't call us a Cinderella because we have guys that were highly recruited out of high school and we have veterans," he said), he acknowledged that the Vols' failure to close out games earlier in the season was frustrating.
"We just haven't found out a way to win until now," he said. "This is the right time to be winning."
He's right. Timing is everything.
STOKES ON A ROLL
Jarnell Stokes' stats in three NCAA Tournament games:
• Vs. Iowa: 18 points, 13 rebounds
• Vs. UMass: 26 points, 14 rebounds
• Vs. Mercer: 17 points, 18 rebounds
Totals: 18-of-31 from the field, 15 rebounds per game, 20.3 points per game
David Climer's columns appear on Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and Monday. Reach him at 615-259-8020 and on Twitter @DavidClimer.