In Donnie Tyndall's opening press conference, Dave Hart told a story about Tyndall feigning disinterest in the Tennessee job once Hart told him some of the 2014-15 schedule. It got some laughs, similar to Hart's joke at the end of Butch Jones' introductory presser when he wished the new coach good luck on facing Oregon, Florida, and Alabama on the road in year one. But it should have fallen flat both times; I don't like our athletic director joking about how impossibly difficult our schedule is the first day on the job for the new guy, or any day for that matter. Tennessee has a longstanding tradition in football and a recently consistent tradition in basketball of scheduling all challengers in the non-conference. In six seasons Bruce Pearl scheduled Texas, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Xavier, Gonzaga, Kansas, and UConn, plus enjoyed the high points of the Memphis rivalry. Cuonzo Martin this year faced two one seeds in the non-conference in Wichita State and Virginia. Unlike Memphis we still play anyone, anywhere in both major sports (unless you're Derek Dooley and Mike Hamilton and like to buy out the North Carolina series).
Butch Jones has continued this tradition in football with a twist, picking up neutral site games against Virginia Tech and, reportedly, West Virginia in the next few years. I hope Donnie Tyndall will continue this practice in basketball as well, and the Vols will continue to play at a high enough level to be a meaningful non-conference foe for the big names in college basketball. I don't know how much wiggle room he'll have with what's unwritten in the 2014-15 schedule right away, but here's some of what his first team will have to deal with:
Old Spice Classic
Every year it seems like Tennessee finds itself in one of the most difficult preseason tournaments on the slate, and November of 2014 will be no different. The Vols will return to Orlando for the Old Spice Classic, last seen in the 2008-09 season with wins over Siena and Georgetown before falling to Gonzaga in the finals. The heavyweights this time around? Kansas and Michigan State, with an undercard also featuring Marquette (that could've been really interesting), Georgia Tech, and mid-majors Rhode Island, Rider, and Santa Clara. The Vols have only one preseason tournament title in the last 15 years, the November 2010 NIT just before everything went south for Pearl in his final season. Donnie Tyndall will certainly have his work cut out for him here, but just like Cuonzo in Maui in year one with Duke and Memphis, the first year coach and his team will have everything to gain in big opportunity games.
Other Non-Conference Foes
The Vols were skipped in this year's Big 12/SEC Challenge, but should face one of the ten schools from the Big 12 this season. The Big 12 put seven teams on the dance floor this past year, so the odds are better than not the Vols will face a challenging opponent here. To my knowledge Tennessee's only remaining home-and-home commitment from Cuonzo's tenure is a return trip at NC State.
Three games in Orlando, one against a Big 12 foe and one at NC State still leaves plenty of room. For the sake of round numbers if the Vols schedule 30 games (UT played 31 this year) with 18 in conference play, there are still seven opportunities out there.
Tyndall's RPI resume suggests he knows how to play the system. Southern Miss was 33rd in RPI this year and 31st the year before; while neither was good enough to get them on the dance floor from Conference USA, the same principles applied to UT's schedule can certainly help the Vols going forward. In 15 non-conference games at Southern Miss last year, Tyndall played six on the road including a trip to Louisville. The year before Southern Miss played at Georgia, at Arizona, and Wichita State on a neutral floor. In 2014 the Golden Eagles finished with an out of conference strength of schedule of 154 (out of 351) in the RPI, very respectable for a team who can't command an audience like the Vols. As a result the Conference USA title was split four ways, but the Golden Eagles were the only one of the four to finish in the Top 60 in RPI.
I would not be surprised at all to see Tyndall schedule Morehead State or even Southern Miss; the Golden Eagles played Tyndall's former school in each of the last two years.
The million dollar question: how much easier or more difficult do you want to make life for you and your team in your first year? If you're seriously considering the NCAA Tournament in this league, you have to schedule for it in the non-conference. Orlando and the Big 12 challenge could be enough, or the Vols could miss both the big fish at Disney and draw TCU.
After spending a year in time-out thanks to Josh Pastner's hissy fit, the Vols and Tigers could renew the rivalry as early as this season. If so, it's Memphis' turn to host. The current agreement is for a four year home-and-home series, and hopefully for many years after that.
If you throw at Memphis into the equation, now you've added some definite punch to the mix. One of the things that hurt Cuonzo Martin was a weird schedule with few opportunities to gain wins fans really cared about. Tennessee lost two of its biggest rivalry opportunities with only one game against Kentucky and no game against Memphis. Putting the Tigers back on the schedule immediately gives Tyndall another opportunity to score points right away and puts him in the most important city in the state in year one.
I really, really hope Tyndall embraces the Memphis rivalry and he and Hart do whatever possible to re-start it ASAP.
Here's Tennessee's pre-determined conference slate this season, the final season of a three-year rotation:
- Twice: Vanderbilt, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina
- Home: Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Texas A&M
- Away: Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ole Miss
Let me again say this rotation schedule is fair only in theory, but in practice hurts the entire conference. The SEC needs to go to a weighted model like the old Big East used where the best teams continue to play the best teams and the lesser teams see each other more often to provide more chances to build wins. We showed an example of how this model could work back in May 2012.
In the here and now, the Vols get no Rupp Arena for the first time since the building opened but will welcome Kentucky to Knoxville after the Cats missed their first ever trip to Thompson-Boling this season. The trade-off: no home date with the Gators. There is, of course, a tough ticket on the docket with Auburn coming to town.
Vanderbilt stays on as our annual rival and should be better with more bodies. After that the Vols get two games against two teams who spent this season on the bubble, and many people liked LSU to make the leap next season before Johnny O'Bryant III went pro, but unless something major changes playing Mississippi State and South Carolina twice is not a blessing to our strength of schedule.
Maybe even thinking about strength of schedule is too much for Tyndall and the Vols in year one. But while I don't think Tennessee should track down Duke and North Carolina for games next year, I do think you have to continue to schedule competitively and work the RPI to your favor. Tyndall has shown an ability to do just that, and the Vols have a history over what is now the last nine years of playing college basketball's best. With or without a lighter-than-usual SEC load, here's hoping Tyndall continues to schedule up in Knoxville as part of keeping the program in forward motion.