Alabama will head to Knoxville for their first conference road game of the season. This will be the only game with Tennessee in the regular season. Road games, conference and otherwise, were a real challenge for our guys last season. If the struggles on the road continue, expect a slow start in conference play as 3 of the first 5 games are on the road.
The highs and lows of sports are one of the things that compels us to watch. Sometimes it happens over the course of a season, sometimes within the game itself. Tennessee's 2013-14 season was a season full of highs and lows. One game they would defeat Virginia, the eventual ACC champs, by 30 points. The next game, they would lose to UTEP on a neutral floor, or be swept by a so-so A&M team in two games. The inconsistent play for a team that was considered by many to be top 25 caliber played a big part in the percentage of Vol fans who began to grumble about Cuonzo Martin. Tennessee did just enough to slip into the tournament as possibly the last team selected. In response, they finally played up to their potential and were one possession away from reaching the Elite Eight.
It appeared that with this NCAA run that Cuonzo Martin could finally take a break from the hot seat and focus on improving the Tennessee program. But with his top three players departing, Cuonzo may have foreseen another rebuilding year in store, and the subsequent heat that would accompany it. So he struck while his name was hot, leaving Tennessee for the green grass of Berkeley. In the immediate aftermath, additional players transferred, and the entire recruiting class that Martin had assembled decommitted.
Into this morass stepped Donnie Tyndall, former coach at Morehead State and, most recently, two seasons at Southern Miss where he took the Golden Eagles to back-to-back NITs. With only five returning scholarship players, Tyndall's prospects for his first season in Knoxville did not look promising. To his credit, Tyndall rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He signed eight new players consisting of transfers, juco recruits and high school recruits to insure his first season will be nothing if not competitive. It remains to be seen if Tennessee can put it all together in Tyndall's first season, but they won't struggle due to scholarship numbers. And for that, Tyndall should be applauded for his hard work.
The foundation of the team will center around the handful of guys who returned. Chief among them is Josh Richardson, a senior who finished last season with a flourish, averaging 19.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, and 3.0 apg in Tennessee's four NCAA tournament games. Whether it was a precursor or an anomaly for Richardson in 2014-15 remains to be seen. The other veterans to watch are Armani Moore and Derek Reese (previously solid role players off the bench) and Robert Hubbs, a former 5 star recruit who only played in 12 games last season due to an injury. Hubbs will be an x-factor for this Vol team.
The newcomers are many so I will only touch on them briefly. Two transfers will join the program: Ian Chiles, a 6'1 guard graduate transfer from IUPUI (I'm too tired to write out the full name of the school) who led IUPUI in scoring at 15.8 ppg. The other transfer is Dominic Woodson, a transfer from Memphis who was recently granted a waiver to play this season for the Vols. Woodson is a former top 100 recruit who never quite got it together at Memphis as a result of off-the-court issues as well as issues with his weight. The early word out of Knoxville is Woodson is doing what he needs to do to play early and often. A skilled 6'10, 280 lb big man, if the light comes on for Woodson, he could also be an x-factor for this team.
The other newcomers are juco recruits, Kevin Punter (20.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 37% 3-pt shooter at State Fair Community College [Mo.], Devon Baulkman (15.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.8 spg at Gulf Coast State College [FL]. The high school recruits are Detrick Mostella (4 star guard originally from Decatur, AL), Jabari McGhee (6'8, 210 lb forward), Tariq Owens (6'10, 205 forward), Willie Carmichael ( 6'8, 210 forward).
A lot of moving parts to be sure, but Tyndall will have some talent on this team along with some returning veterans. If this team can gel, they could end up being a lot better than people think they are. The biggest question marks outside of chemistry and the transition that comes with a new coaching staff is who will man the point for this team (there doesn't appear to be a true point guard on the roster) and can they get enough production from the post?