Might be time to get off Donnie Tyndall's fence.
For a fanbase waiting for a cloud of NCAA investigation to pass and a team which basically reset its roster after being two points from the Elite Eight, it's felt at times like someone pressed pause on Tennessee's basketball program. We don't know when the NCAA's findings at Southern Miss will be released, though the process seems likely to extend beyond the end of this season.
But we do now know this Tennessee team, in the midst of so much turnover and uncertainty, just pushed play. And instead of having the caveat of Southern Miss in every headline, today these Vols made themselves the story.
Beating Kansas State last weekend was one thing. The Wildcats were picked fourth in the Big 12 preseason poll and may in fact turn out to be that good, but they weren't as good as this Butler team. This Butler team, 8-1 coming in, had wins over North Carolina and Georgetown and was flat shutting teams down defensively.
So they come to Knoxville today and, in a hard fought first half, splash two threes in the final minute to build a nine point lead at halftime. Then they built it to 12 to open the second half. Moral victories, teaching opportunities, and building for the future were all on the table.
At this point, Josh Richardson - the constant in the storm, a three-star Cuonzo Martin recruit who was basically a defensive stopper until the NCAA Tournament last year - had two points. He scored the game's next eight on four consecutive possessions as the Vols came roaring back.
There was a run like this against Kansas in Orlando, as the Vols erased a double-digit lead and got close behind their press. But Tennessee could never get in front of the Jayhawks, closing to within one before running out of gas. So it felt as the lead stayed juuuuuuuust out of reach from Richardson's fourth straight bucket to make it 37-33 at 16:31 to Armani Moore's driving score to finally give Tennessee the lead 10 minutes and 14 seconds later.
Kevin Punter and Derek Reese followed Richardson's surge to complete a 12-0 run to tie the game at 37-37 at 13:50, and other than a Butler three putting the Bulldogs up four for all of one trip down the floor, the game was played within one possession for the next seven minutes. The Vols had the ball four times with a chance to take the lead over those seven minutes but couldn't do it. How much was too much to ask of this team?
But it turns out Tennessee's pressure defense was worth more than their inexperience today. Once Moore finally put the Vols in front with 6:17 to go, Tennessee stepped on the gas.
Leading 51-49, an Armani Moore steal set up Kevin Punter for a three in the corner. He buried it, putting the Vols up 54-49 with 4:58 to play. Two and a half minutes later with the Vols up three with the ball, Tennessee had an inbounds play with nine seconds on the shot clock. Tyndall called for Derek Reese to fake a hand-off to Josh Richardson and then step into a three. The result?
The bank was open! 3⃣— Derek Reese (@dpreese2313) December 14, 2014
The Vols only made three threes all night. But those two shots by Punter and Reese, with the Vols already in front, made for a world of confidence for these players and the home crowd. If Reese's bank wasn't the dagger, Josh Richardson provided it on the very next possession with an aggressive move with 14 seconds left on the shot clock to put the Vols up eight. On the night Richardson was 9 of 13 and Punter 7 of 10. Richardson was credited with six steals and Tennessee turned Butler over 14 times.
The only team to shoot better than 41% on Butler was Oklahoma, the only other team to beat them at 45.5%. Today Tennessee was an even 50% from the field, 59% in the second half.
After going down 12 early in the second half, Tennessee closed on a 42-18 run.
This was a stunning win that can go a very long way for this team, and for Donnie Tyndall. And the head coach certainly knows it:
This was the second ranked win of Donnie Tyndall's career.— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) December 14, 2014
Tyndall on second ranked win: "I don't know that I've ever been more proud of a group of guys than I was today."— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) December 14, 2014
The biggest question for the head coach with the NCAA knocking on doors was how he could build a relationship with the fanbase under such circumstances. But by answering the biggest question for this team - can they compete right away? - by not just competing but beating a Top 15 team, Tyndall's Vols invite you to get behind them. In Ken Pomeroy's rankings Butler was the third best team left on UT's schedule behind the usual suspects in Lexington and Gainesville. The Vols will still be young, still running a new system, still have to go on the road to play 8-1 NC State on Wednesday and will still have growing pains. But if they can compete with Kansas, beat Kansas State, and then run away from a very good Butler team in the second half today?
Competitiveness will move from hope to expectation, and winning will move from a dream to a real possibility every night (hold your Kentucky jokes, we've got more than two months). This was a huge win for this team, Donnie Tyndall, and this program. Tennessee has your attention again. And if they play this way, they will keep it all year.