KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Just seven months after playing in the NCAA regional semifinals, Tennessee is being picked to finish near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.
Rarely has a team coming off a Sweet 16 appearance been held in such low regard. Then again, this Tennessee team bears only a passing resemblance to the squad that made that postseason run.
Tennessee returns only four scholarship players from the team that went 24-13 last season. The Volunteers also have a new coaching staff, as Donnie Tyndall arrived from Southern Mississippi after Cuonzo Martin left for California. All those new faces may explain why SEC writers predicted Tennessee to finish 13th in a 14-team league.
”I’m a guy that’s up for the challenge,” Tyndall said. ”Everywhere I’ve been, we’ve been, if you will, the underdog or overlooked in some way, shape or form. I’ll embrace that. The biggest thing is I hope our players embrace that. … We certainly don’t anticipate finishing 13th.”
Tyndall spent the summer restocking a roster with players who could fit his up-tempo style. He lured Devon Baulkman and Kevin Punter from the junior-college ranks, added Memphis transfer Dominic Woodson plus IUPUI graduate transfer Ian Chiles and signed freshmen Willie Carmichael, Jabari McGhee, Detrick Mostella and Tariq Owens.
”It’s just crazy,” senior guard Josh Richardson said of all the changes in the roster and coaching staff. ”It’s all happened really fast. I think Coach Tyndall’s done a good job of putting together a good team. From the first time they stepped on campus until now, they came light years. We have a lot more potential than I expected.”
Richardson is the lone Tennessee player who started a game last season. The only other scholarship players who return from the Sweet 16 team are junior forwards Armani Moore and Derek Reese and sophomore guard Robert Hubbs, who played only 12 games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. Hubbs says he’s healthy now.
Here are some things to watch when Tennessee opens the season Nov. 14 against VCU at Annapolis, Maryland:
WHO’S AT THE POINT? Tennessee doesn’t have a proven point guard on its roster. Punter, a transfer from State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Missouri, will get the first shot to run the point. Punter, a natural shooting guard, is just learning how to play point guard. Richardson, also a natural shooting guard, is expected to provide minutes at point guard as well.
LOST POST PRODUCTION: The Vols must replace Jeronne Maymon and second-round draft pick Jarnell Stokes, who combined for 24.8 points and 18.7 rebounds per game last season. Stokes and Maymon were both listed at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds. The only player Tennessee has with that kind of bulk this season is Memphis transfer Dominic Woodson, who is listed as 6-10 and 280. Woodson is down to 275 and is attempting to drop more weight.
TYNDALL’S DONE THIS BEFORE: This isn’t the first time Tyndall has inherited a program without many returning players. He took over Southern Mississippi in 2012-13 and went 27-10 and reached the NIT in his first season, even though the Golden Eagles returned only four players from a team that had gone 25-9 and had reached the NCAA tournament a year earlier. ”As amazing as it is, this is probably a little more experienced than that team,” Tyndall said.
RICHARDSON RIDING MOMENTUM: Richardson is the only Tennessee player who averaged more than five points per game last season, so the Vols are hoping his surge in the NCAA tournament will carry over into his senior year. Richardson averaged 19.3 points and 3.0 assists and shot 61.7 percent in four NCAA tournament games.
NEW STAFF, NEW DEFENSE: Tyndall’s arrival means a change in defensive philosophy. Tennessee generally employed a man-to-man defense under Martin. Tyndall prefers a matchup zone and a faster tempo. ”I think we’ve got the perfect team for that,” Carmichael said. ”We’ve got a lot of athletic guards and athletic bigs, a lot of long and lanky players that should fit that zone perfectly.”