KNOXVILLE — Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes is more than halfway through his sophomore season, yet one element of college basketball continues to puzzle him.
“I haven’t understood why people play better at home,” Stokes said. “The goal is still orange (on the road). I don’t understand that.”
Stokes’ own team should really confuse him then.
Tennessee (11-8, 3-4 SEC) finally showed it could win close games over the last week by earning consecutive one-point victories over Alabama and Vanderbilt at Thompson-Boling Arena. Now the Volunteers must prove they can survive on the road.
Although Tennessee went 2-1 at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off back in November, the Volunteers haven’t won on an opposing team’s floor all season. The Vols will try again Saturday at Arkansas (12-8, 3-4), where they’ll face another team that plays much better at home.
“The next phase obviously is winning games on the road,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “When you fight for top spots and fight for leverage in the league, you’ve got to be able to win games on the road.”
Tennessee hasn’t done that. For that matter, neither has Arkansas.
Arkansas hasn’t won away from home all year. The Razorbacks’ road woes continued Thursday with a 59-56 loss at Alabama. They’re 0-5 in true road games and 0-2 at neutral sites.
But they’re virtually unbeatable at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas is 12-1 at home, including a Dec. 22 victory over Alabama A&M that was counted as a home game even though it took place in North Little Rock. Arkansas’ only home loss came Nov. 30 against Syracuse, currently ranked sixth in the nation.
“Young teams, they play to, whether it be the crowd or just the atmosphere that’s in the building,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I think our guys, like any other team, it gives them that extra adrenaline. So, I think young teams, they tend to play well at home. And if you look around the country, that’s what you’re seeing.”
Tennessee and Arkansas have shown flashes of potential at home, but both teams realize they must play much better on the road if they’re going to have any chance of moving up the SEC standings. Missouri is the only other SEC team that hasn’t won a true road game this season.
Arkansas squandered an early 15-3 lead in a 75-54 loss at South Carolina last weekend and led in the second half at Alabama.
Tennessee’s five road losses have been decided by an average margin of 5.6 points. The Vols had a chance to win late in virtually all their road games, but they’ve turned the ball over and have struggled to get stops down the stretch.
“We’re going to get their best shot,” Anderson said. “It gives us an opportunity to play at home, where we play well, but coming off a tough, tough loss at Alabama. I’m anxious to see our guys respond.”
Tennessee believes it knows what to expect from Bud Walton Arena.
“It’s like playing at Ole Miss or Alabama, pretty much the same environment,” Tennessee forward Kenny Hall said. “They’ve got a decent crowd, a loud crowd. It’s not Thompson-Boling or anything, but it’s definitely a home-court advantage for them. We’ve just got to take care of business and stay mentally strong.”
The Vols likely will have to do that without junior guard Trae Golden, who strained his right hamstring against Vanderbilt. Martin called Golden “very doubtful” for Saturday’s game.
Golden’s injury probably will create more playing time for sophomore walk-on Brandon Lopez, whose only experience in a true road game this season was a five-minute stint against Virginia on Dec. 5.
“It’s still basketball, at the end of the day,” Lopez said. “You’ve really got to go in there with that type of mentality. You may be nervous or things like that, but that just goes with it. It’s mainly about keeping the focus up offensively and defensively.”
The Vols also need a big performance from Stokes, whose home-road splits reflect his team’s fortunes. Stokes is scoring 13.5 points per game at home and 5.0 points per game on the road this season. In SEC competition, Stokes has averaged 16.8 points and 12.8 rebounds in home games versus 5.3 points and 5.3 rebounds on the road.
“The last couple of games, I thought he’s been really assertive getting offensive rebounds, boxing out, scoring the basketball,” Martin said. “For him to take that same mentality to the road, we’ve got to do a better job of getting him the ball in situations where he can score. If he doesn’t get it, get it off the glass.”