Donnie Tyndall took the Tennessee Basketball job exactly one month ago Wednesday, the day he made Tariq Owens the eighth new addition to the roster. Every new coach deals with roster turnover, especially in basketball, but I'm not sure we've ever seen something like this. Since the Vols were put out by Michigan in the Sweet 16, Tennessee has lost three starters to graduation, a fourth to the NBA Draft, two other players transferring out on the heels of Cuonzo Martin, and four incoming freshmen following suit.
Tyndall hasn't just remained calm in the storm, he has acted with speed and balance. We revisit this handy chart from Gage Arnold to show how much new has entered the program, but its newness is measured: Tennessee's eight new players include a pair of graduate transfers with one year of eligibility, two juco transfers with two years left, and four true freshmen - one four-star and three three-stars - just the same as Cuonzo was bringing in.
Chemistry matters more in basketball than any other sport, and the results here will be mysterious, exciting, and hopefully the right kind of bomb. In two years at Southern Miss Tyndall played deep rotations, with eight players averaging more than 14 minutes per game in 2013 and nine hitting that mark in 2014. Last year only the starters and Darius Thompson averaged those minutes for Cuonzo Martin. If form holds there is room for many of UT's 13 scholarship players to make their mark right away.
Tennessee's known qualities will certainly be in the mix: Josh Richardson was UT's best player in the NCAA Tournament and is the team's lone returning senior, Robert Hubbs stayed with the Vols and Tyndall after some consideration, and Armani Moore is best suited to play Tyndall's style. Derek Reese played fewer minutes and is less of a sure thing, but has the range and potential to certainly be in the mix with this team.
Thompson's absence hurts because you lose not just a promising sophomore-to-be, but the guy you thought would be the answer at point guard for the next three years. Tyndall's signees include four guards - IUPUI transfer Ian Chiles, jucos Kevin Punter and Devon Baulkman, and four-star freshman Detrick Mostella - but they all appear to be of the shooting/combo type, even Chiles at 6'1". Who brings the ball up the floor for this team - both as a starter and off the bench, where walk-on Brandon Lopez could still be an answer - will be a major question to answer.
Tennessee does still have Pops Ndiyae on the roster, but there are rumblings he could be the final piece to leave, freeing one more scholarship. But even if he stays, there was nothing about Pops' game under Cuonzo Martin to suggest he was a future starter at center. If the Vols go with one of the newcomers at point guard then play Hubbs, Richardson, and Moore, you still need a post presence. Owens' signature helps ease that burden, but at 6'10" 210 he's going to remind a lot of people of a taller A.J. Davis early on and needs time in the weight room. Tyndall's first signee, Jabari McGhee, may fit the Moore/Reese mold at 6'8" 225. This makes FGCU transfer Eric McKnight a very important piece at 6'9" and 225; he averaged 5.1 rebounds in just over 21 minutes per game last year.
With so many moving pieces it's hard to put together a starting lineup or any concrete ideas of a rotation. But if the Vols can find a reliable option at point guard and a serviceable presence in the post, the Vols should have enough athleticism to give teams trouble defensively everywhere else. There could be leadership questions, but again I am encouraged by Josh Richardson's play in the NCAA Tournament and his role as a senior; our biggest question with Richardson two months ago was what he could do when the other team's best defender didn't have Jordan McRae to follow around. But if Hubbs is fully healthy and plays toward his potential and the Vols find even one or two scoring threats from this incoming haul, Tennessee could have some dangerous options. Even if Tyndall's first team doesn't pan out, he hasn't burdened the future with four of these scholarships set to come off the books in the next two years.
Expectations aren't just unfair, they're unfounded. We have no idea what these 13 players can do together, and in Tyndall's first year there should be enough grace to enjoy the ride. But it bears repeating that Tyndall did inherit a similar situation at Southern Miss in 2013, including the loss of four of the top five scorers from a 9 seed NCAA Tournament team. Tyndall transitioned them into a 25 win team in the regular season, a double overtime loss to Memphis in the Conference USA Tournament away from a return to the NCAA Tournament.
Tyndall has moved with speed and wisdom, and while there are still many months and many games left to figure out exactly how this first team will look and many years left to see what he can ultimately accomplish as our head coach, I think he has handled this much change as well as we could reasonably ask. So much turnover was not an ideal beginning, but Tyndall has assembled a very interesting response, one I can't wait to see in action together. Here's hoping the chemistry ignites.