Can he recruit in the SEC?
It was probably the single biggest question mark surrounding Tennessee head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin since he was hired to fill the vacated seat of Bruce Pearl on March 27. Three months into the Martin era, the residual effect of a hastily thrown together recruiting class left the question lingering. Six months in, the new recruits had made it to campus, but a slow start on the Class of 2012 still left something to be desired.
Today, nine months to the day of announcing Cuonzo as their 18th head basketball coach, Knoxville seems to have put the question on the backburner.... for now. A five-star prospect will do that for a basketball coach.
A five-star prospect from Memphis that will presumably be eligible to play next month as soon as he gets to campus? Now you're speaking a language that the Big Orange Nation can understand.
Tennessee hasn't had a lot of luck in the Bluff City. As a matter of fact, they haven't had any luck at all. Even after the success of the Bruce Pearl era, which included six consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, Memphis remained a nut that Tennessee simply couldn't crack. Until Cuonzo Martin pulled down a commitment from five-star power forward Jarnell Stokes last Thursday.
Say what you will about Stokes' peculiar recruitment, but at the end of the day you have to give all the credit to Cuonzo and his staff. Tennessee may have been the benefactor of Stokes' ineligibility and an NCAA rule that essentially ruled out the hometown Memphis Tigers for Stokes, who was seeking mid-term eligibility, but the Memphis prep star will be playing his ball in Knoxville and that's nothing short of amazing.
Jarnell Stokes hasn't taken a shot and he hasn't gone up and snatched a rebound, but the potential impact that he can have on Tennessee basketball is obvious, and it's two-fold.
A consensus five-star and a consensus Top 20 player, what Stokes offers Cuonzo Martin and Tennessee in the immediate future is a big, physical power forward who is a college-ready rebounder and a potentially destructive force on the block. However, in the long haul what he offers the program might be even more important.
Memphis is as talent-rich of a city as there is in the South, and arguably the country. It's provided enough high-level prospects nearly entirely on its own to keep the Tigers competitive and relevant in the world of college basketball for quite some time. But for Tennessee, it had been like trying to break into Fort Knox.
However, with Stokes providing a potential inroad, Memphis doesn't appear to be the impenetrable castle it once was. It might not pay immediate dividends, but if Stokes has the type of career at Tennessee that people seem to think he's capable of, then it's no stretch to imagine that Memphis will certainly take notice.
At the very least, he's a step up in caliber from Cuonzo's previous and current commitments. No disrespect to guys like Josh Richardson, Wes Washpun, Yemi Makanjoula and Dwight Miller who are all playing important minutes for Tennessee currently, but high-profile commitments resonate in the world of college basketball. They send a message.
For Tennessee and Cuonzo Martin, the message is loud and clear. We're not here to fade back into the obscurity that was Tennessee basketball pre-Pearl.