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Tennessee Basketball Preview: Donnie Tyndall Era Begins Tonight

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Tennessee faces Pikeville in exhibition action tonight as we get our first look at the Donnie Tyndall Vols in action.

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Typically you don't want to put too much stock in exhibitions, where looking good can lead to false assumptions and looking bad can lead to worse assumptions.  But tonight will be our first chance to see Donnie Tyndall's Tennessee Vols in action, as NAIA power Pikeville comes calling one night after playing #1 Kentucky, such is the life of NAIA powers apparently.  And thanks to the SEC Network, you can check out the action at 7:00 PM ET.

There are a thousand things to see for a team returning just four players and only three who saw meaningful action.  Here's a rundown of what we think we'll be watching for in Tyndall's first game:

What We Know:  Josh Richardson, Armani Moore, and Derek Reese

Josh Richardson is one of just two seniors on the roster and the only returning Vol with that distinction.  He has improved in each of his first three seasons in every major offensive category:

  • PPG:  2.9 ('12), 7.9 ('13), 10.9 ('14)
  • FG%:  35.3, 46.9, 47.4
  • FT%:  64.0, 69.2, 79.3
  • 3P%:  23.7, 21.4, 34.0
  • A/TO:  0.7, 0.9, 1.5
Richardson was also a revelation in the NCAA Tournament:
  • Iowa:  6 of 13, 17 points
  • UMass:  5 of 7, 15 points
  • Mercer:  9 of 13, 26 points (career high)
  • Michigan:  9 of 14, 19 points
  • Totals:  61.7 FG%, 19.25 ppg
He's been Tennessee's best defender in Cuonzo Martin's aggressive man-to-man system the last two years and a textbook glue guy, but now the biggest question becomes, "What can he do as the alpha male?"  Richardson will draw the opponent's best defender with no Jordan McRae around.  How will his offense game grow with Tyndall with increased pressure?

Armani Moore is slotted to play the four on a massively undersized team, but he's been on the block before.  Moore is a dynamic shot blocker but has only played around 13 minutes per game the last two years.  He'll be called on to do much more as a starter, and his post defense will be his biggest question at 6'5".  Hey, he's taller than Dane Bradshaw.

Derek Reese is expected to compete for playing time off the bench after appearing in 24 of UT's 37 games last year.

What We Don't Know:  Robert Hubbs III

Cuonzo Martin's second five-star signee was expected to be that extra offensive punch for the Vol offense last year and help push this team to the second weekend of the tournament.  Instead they made it there without him when a lingering shoulder issue ended his freshman campaign after just a dozen games.  During that time he averaged 5.3 points in 18 minutes of action but shot just 30.7% from the floor and 28.1% from the arc.  Something clearly wasn't right and the Vols took him off the floor to help solve that problem.

Now playing in a different system, Tyndall has publicly pumped the brakes on any Hubbs as savior talk as he continues to recover, mature, and adjust.  Don't be surprised if Hubbs doesn't crack the starting lineup.  Tennessee needs him to play up to his rating as soon as possible for Tyndall's early portion to go as well as we'd like, but there may not be need to panic if that doesn't happen right out of the gate.

What We Don't Know:  Everyone Else

There are nine newcomers who could vie for playing time on this squad.  In late September Tyndall said this would be his starting lineup if the season started that night:
  • PG Kevin Punter
  • SG Devon Baulkman
  • SF Josh Richardson
  • PF Armani Moore
  • C Willie Carmichael
That group doesn't include the three players fans are probably most interested to see:  Hubbs, Memphis transfer Dominic Woodson, and late four-star signee Detrick Mostella.

Donnie Tyndall is refreshingly forward and doesn't deal in coachspeak.  So you're probably well-versed in Woodson's fatigue issues and inability to give the Vols much right at his second.  As a result you're more likely to see 6'8" freshman Carmichael start on the block and the 6'10" Woodson spell him here and there.  Woodson has three years of eligibility remaining, so there's time to bring him along slowly.

Mostella is the player I'm most interested to see, as his immediate upside will have a lot to do with Tennessee's ceiling this season.  Early reports suggest he's not disciplined enough yet to play within Tyndall's system, but he's coming along and could be an offensive weapon for a team that will surely be looking for them.

Point guard is one of Tennessee's biggest weaknesses, and juco Kevin Punter isn't a natural fit there either.  Graduate transfer Ian Chiles was brought in to help run the point, but right now apparently Punter and then Josh Ricardson are the team's best options.  Another juco, Devon Baulkman, will help fill the void in the backcourt as well.

We'll need more than one exhibition to get a real feel for what these guys can do, although the elevator will go to the upper floors immediately as the regular season begins in a neutral site game with #15 VCU in eleven days.  But one thing you should notice right away is the difference between watching a Cuonzo Martin team and a Donnie Tyndall team.  Tyndall's teams aren't super quick fast - last year Southern Miss was 260th out of 351 in possessions per game - but they aren't Cuonzo's Vols either, who finished 334th in that stat last year and were the only SEC team in the 300s.  Likewise, expect some clear defensive differences and probably a step backward in that category, at least at first.

It's only a first glimpse and it's only a team currently down 41 points to Kentucky.  But there's so much new to see.  A new day begins for a basketball program looking to continue to move forward.  Here's hoping for a good first impression.