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VOL. 39 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 2, 2015

UT’s Tyndall winning fans despite NCAA investigation

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Tennessee Coach Donnie Tyndall has gained fans with his emotional approach on the sidelines, his team’s tenacious defense on the court and an early season upset of Butler. But all that goodwill could disappear quickly if an NCAA investigation of his time at Southern Mississippi uncovers serious infractions.

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KNOXVILLE – Donnie Tyndall has hardly slowed down since the former Southern Miss head coach took over Tennessee’s basketball program in April.

Of course, Tyndall had little choice.

Only four scholarship players from UT’s 2013-14 roster remained after former coach Cuonzo Martin left for California in April. Martin’s former UT recruits defected, Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes declared for the NBA draft, and underclassmen A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson decided to leave UT.

So Tyndall and his staff were forced to assemble a team, and they did so in a little more than a month. They signed eight players – two fifth-year senior transfers, two junior-college signees, a prep-school graduate and three freshmen – and built the team around senior guard Josh Richardson, the Vols’ top returning player.

When the Vols opened the season with a Nov. 14 loss against then-No. 15 Virginia Commonwealth, they quickly showed what Tyndall’s coaching style was all about.

Tyndall frantically subs players in and out of the game, and starting lineups are subject to change with each game.

And Tyndall plays a matchup zone defense the entire game, the full 40 minutes. Has the SEC ever seen that?

Tyndall is nothing but high octane on the court. He paces the sidelines. He screams at players and officials. He turns to the fans, waives his arms upward. Time to get off your feet, Vol fans.

Then he enters the media room, calm and collected. He congratulates opponents, talks basketball and gets a chuckle here and there from reporters.

Tyndall is fiery on the bench, personable off the court. You would never know an NCAA investigation from his tenure at Southern Miss looms.

It’s his second brush with the NCAA rulebook. In 2010, the NCAA brought sanctions on Tyndall’s program at Morehead State for an incident that involved a booster offering improper benefits to recruits, among other rules violations.

Now, the NCAA is investigating Southern Miss and Tyndall’s two seasons there. This investigation reportedly stems from possible financial assistance given to players who were academically ineligible at the time.

Tyndall has agreed to cooperate with the NCAA on the Southern Miss situation, and perhaps he’s even been pro-active. Before the season opener, assistant coach Adam Howard resigned citing personal reasons, and R.J. Rush, special assistant to the coach, left citing family reasons. Howard and Rush were among the staff at Southern Miss who moved with Tyndall when he was hired at UT.

The Vols, meanwhile, seem as unfazed by any NCAA distractions as Tyndall. After going 2-3 in November, UT defeated Kansas State on Dec. 6 and upset then-No. 15-ranked Butler a week later.

Chris Dortch, editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook for the last 20 years and a Chattanooga resident, has followed Tyndall’s coaching climb and written about Vols basketball for even longer.

As the Vols prepare for the SEC opener at Mississippi State on Jan. 7, here’s Dortch’s observations on Tyndall and the program:

Q: What is your take on Tyndall’s coaching job thus far?

A: “Considering the mess that was left behind, including two players taken in the NBA Draft, a four-man recruiting class choosing to sign elsewhere and two players, including point guard Darius Thompson, departing, he’s done a great job.

"Tyndall and his staff had to scramble to find players and install his system, which is complex compared to what has been run at Tennessee in recent years.’’

Q: How did Tyndall put together a team so fast (only four scholarship players back), and have you ever seen anything like that done?

A: “Tyndall did the same thing at Southern Miss when he took the job there a couple of years ago, so it wasn’t unusual for him to scramble around and find players.

“He and his assistants called everyone they knew, scoured the country looking for unsigned high school players, junior college transfers and Division I transfers, and brought in all the above. Two players who had signed with Tyndall followed him to Knoxville, and that helped.

“The crazy thing is that the recruiting effort could have been even better had 6-foot-4 point guard Jon Octeus been allowed in school. He was a senior-eligible transfer from Colorado State, where he had been a key player before deciding to get his graduate degree and use his final year of eligibility at UCLA.

“Despite the fact he was a college graduate with a 2.5 GPA, he wasn’t allowed in UCLA, sort of at the last minute. He actually then wanted to come to Tennessee, but school had been in session for two weeks already, and Tyndall and his staff just couldn’t pull it together.

“Octeus landed at Purdue, where he became an instant starter. Last time I checked, he was averaging seven points, nearly five rebounds, a little more than three assists and was leading the team in steals and shooting 80 percent from the free-throw line.

“How much better would Tennessee be if Octeus had gotten in school and Josh Richardson could have focused on playing the wing instead of the point?’’

Q: Where should UT fans expect this team to be in the SEC, and possibly the postseason?

A: “I think Tennessee will be competitive in the SEC, mainly because the league isn’t that strong top to bottom. After Kentucky and maybe Florida, perhaps Arkansas and LSU, the teams seem about evenly matched, except for Mississippi State at the bottom end.

“I think if Richardson continues to improve at the point, if Devon Baulkman has become the consistent double-figure scoring threat he appears to be, if Detrick Mostella continues to improve and utilize his great natural gifts as a scorer and the Vols’ two young post players, Willie Carmichael and Tariq Owens, continue to gain strength and confidence, Tennessee will win a lot more games than the pundits believed it could.

“Not sure about postseason play, but if the Vols can get 16 victories, against a fairly difficult schedule, I don’t see why the NIT wouldn’t be interested.

"Tennessee should have a decent RPI [Rating Percentage Index] if it can manage to win seven or eight SEC games.’’

Q: Tyndall shuffles players in and out all the time. Does that work?

A: “The system demands that, because it’s high energy all the time. The plan, as Tyndall has said so often, is to “take the legs” of the opponents, to wear them down in the second half.

“If you notice, that’s where Tennessee does its damage, holding opponents to extended scoring droughts. That’s been evident even in losses; the Vols were down 17 points at N.C. State in the second half and cut the deficit to five.

“These guys don’t quit. An overlooked fact by some is that Tyndall has legitimate depth – 10 players at his disposal. He’s not been afraid to use that depth as a weapon.’’

Q: Describe his matchup zone, and how/why is it so rare you see it played an entire game?

A: “Well, it’s rare because the SEC, with a few exceptions, has been a man-to-man league. Some coaches have mixed in a little zone trying to keep opponents off balance, but man is the defense of choice.

“Tyndall’s zone is sort of a hybrid that’s always morphing, from 2-3, to 1-3-1 and back again. Sometimes, it even falls into a man to man. The trick is to keep opponents from doing damage close to the rim. It’s hard to prepare for and hard for an opposing point guard to tell what the Vols are in so he can run offense.

“What makes the zone all the more effective is Tyndall’s constant full-court press. Again, he has multiple press packages that he uses. Is he necessarily looking for steals from the press? No, but he’ll take them if he can get them. The real point of the press is to take 10-15 seconds off the opponent’s shot clock, which then allows for even less time to solve that ever-changing zone.

"The zone has proven vulnerable to a 3-point shooter who happens to get hot on a given night, but then Tyndall told everyone that could happen.’’

Q: How do you think fans are handling Tyndall with the looming NCAA questions?

“There was a huge letdown when the NCAA allegations were revealed, as though the fans were collectively saying, “here we go again,” after the disastrous end to the Bruce Pearl era. At first, I think fans were maybe slow to embrace Donnie, not knowing what his future will be.

“But, I was at the Butler game, and after Tyndall coaxed, prodded and pushed his rag-tag bunch to a victory over a nationally ranked team, fans began to realize that Tyndall could coach, and that his players, if not overly talented, were at least playing hard.

“At times during the Cuonzo Martin regime, fans questioned whether he was pushing his players to play hard all the time. That’s not the case anymore.’’

Q: What about the NCAA investigation? Is it serious?

A: “I’ve heard mixed reports about what the NCAA knows and what might happen. Whatever goes down in the future, the program has already been diminished, because one of Tyndall’s most trusted assistants, and a good young coach, Adam Howard, was forced to leave for “personal reasons.”

“We all know that’s a load of garbage. Howard was let go. So somebody somewhere thinks something serious went down at Southern Miss.

“Perhaps Howard’s ouster was a pre-emptive strike to help save Tyndall’s job. Maybe he’ll be suspended. Other coaches with bigger names and at more successful basketball schools have been suspended, not fired.

“But precedent has been set at Tennessee, where Pearl was fired even though the school initially said it would back him despite the fact he was handed a three-year show cause penalty.

“If the stuff at Southern Miss were serious, would Tennessee’s hand be forced about Tyndall? It’s important to remember that none of what has been alleged to happen occurred at Tennessee.’’

Q: Do you think Tyndall is a long-term guy for UT fans hoping for a good run?

A: “If he can get past this NCAA issue, I believe Tyndall can build a successful program at Tennessee. The key, as always, is recruiting. His system doesn’t need a bunch of five-star recruits to be successful, but he does need to recruit a talented point guard and some big men, plus a couple of knock-down shooters.

“The reason: It’s a given Tyndall’s teams will play defense. But the Vols struggle to score. A good point guard, a big man who can score in the paint and a 40-percent 3 shooter could get those easy baskets that will make Tennessee a better team.

“Defense has been a calling card so far, but both facets of the game need to contribute equally to produce a 25-win, NCAA tournament type of season. If either an offense or a defense is forced to carry a team all year, there are bound to be breakdowns.

“Balanced teams are the ones that win big, that can go on the road and win consistently, and can make deep runs in March.

“Wichita State’s recent run of success proves that you don’t have to have five-star kids to be successful. You just need to guard, board, be tough, and be equally adept at both ends of the floor.’’

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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