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Getting Tennessee Basketball Healthy: Donnie Tyndall & The Short-Term

Donnie Tyndall got more than expected out of this year's team, but uncertainty with the NCAA investigation and the loss of Josh Richardson make the future difficult to predict.

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Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

(This is the spiritual successor to a post from two weeks ago.  That one dealt with this year's team.  This serves as Part II, which deals with next year's team and Donnie Tyndall's place in the NCAA investigation.  A third part will deal with the overall basketball culture & our definitions of success.)

With no more games to play, the Tennessee Basketball conversation shifts away from the achievements and struggles of the 2014-15 Vols and toward Donnie Tyndall's place in the NCAA investigation at Southern Miss.  What's actually going to happen is Tennessee Basketball is getting ready to be dwarfed by the long-awaited Tennessee Football Spring Practice With Realistically High Expectations, followed by Tennessee Football Countdown to Kickoff With Realistically High Expectations.  Which means the basketball conversation as a whole will become a lot quieter.

This is good because it helps Donnie Tyndall to be under the radar right now, and bad because the product on the floor wasn't good enough to create conversation on its own for the first time in ten years.

Some of what will happen with Tyndall will be a timing issue.  When will Tennessee receive the NCAA's Letter of Allegations?  If it's in the next two weeks and the Vols choose to fire Tyndall based on its contents, Tennessee could get in the thick of the coaching carousel.  If it's in late April or May and Tennessee finds itself confronted with that same choice, the administration would have to look at leftovers and interim options.

For all the conversation here, there are two outcomes with pretty clear-cut results:

  • Tyndall is named in the letter of allegations in a manner which leads Tennessee officials to believe he'll receive a show-cause from the Committee on Infractions. Tyndall is fired. The NCAA's enforcement website has a plethora of information about their enforcement policies and the new penalty tiers.  If you look at the notable show causes in men's basketball, most include lying to the NCAA and/or repeat offenders like Kelvin Sampson.  Tyndall's first run-in with the NCAA wasn't a major infraction at Morehead State, but that could be a factor in the committee's eyes.  If Tyndall is tied to major academic fraud or lack of institutional control, Tennessee should anticipate a show-cause and move on, firing their coach with cause.
  • Tyndall is not named in the letter of allegations or named for minor allegations.  Tyndall stays.  Hooray for simplicity!
The problem is the gray area in the space between, which is where Tyndall is most likely to fall and where Tennessee Basketball is stuck until this all gets resolved one way or another.

One thing I think we all feel pretty comfortable saying:  Tennessee isn't going to make a move they think will force them to pay the buyout. As mentioned by The Tennessean in December, Tennessee can fire Tyndall with cause if he is found guilty of a Level I or Level II infraction by the NCAA, allowing the Vols to avoid his $3 million buyout.  Level I infractions include lack of institutional control, academic misconduct, cash or other benefits in order to secure a recruit, and dishonest conduct.  Level II violations include failure to monitor and "multiple recruiting, financial aid, or eligibility violations that do not amount to lack of institutional control."

Based on what we know about the investigation at Southern Miss, it's difficult to see how somebody isn't getting hit with Level I and/or Level II infractions.  Will it be someone like former assistant Adam Howard, or will Tyndall also be fully implicated?  We don't know.

This, to me, is the real rubber-meets-the-road question: if Tyndall isn't hit with a show cause but could be fired with cause without having to pay the buyout, what will Tennessee do?  What should Tennessee do?

The Current State of the Program

I think most of us are comfortable saying the 2014-15 Vols overachieved, especially considering the losses of Ian Chiles, Dominic Woodson, and Jabari McGhee.  16-16 with a handful of quality wins allowed the Vols to play meaningful basketball throughout the season, and to finish three spots higher than originally picked at the start of the season in the SEC.  All of this is a credit to Donnie Tyndall and his staff.

Tennessee, also to their credit, was competitive in most of their losses.  In SEC play (including both games in the tournament), the Vols had an average point differential of -2.8.  Five of Tennessee's 12 SEC losses were by six points or less.  On many nights, the Vols were close.  And they weren't close because they were especially lucky:  KenPom ranks the Vols 114th nationally in that category.  They were close because they played hard and played over their heads in stretches against a deeper-than-usual SEC.

So you can easily believe Tyndall and the Vols are right there, and just need a little push to get over the hump and back to playing for the NCAA Tournament every year.  But you then also must ask exactly where that push is coming from, and how soon it can get here given the current situation with Tyndall.  None of these things ever happen in a vacuum.

The Vols lose only Josh Richardson, but it's Josh Richardson.  Next year the Vols will have four seniors - Devon Baulkman, Armani Moore, Kevin Punter, and Derek Reese - who will be a vital part of what Tennessee can do next season, but by nature can't be part of the long-term plan.

Tyndall can say what he wants about this situation not affecting recruiting (and really, what else would he say?), but Tennessee only brought in a pair of three-stars in Tyndall's initial signing period:  shooting guard Shembari Phillips, and Armani Moore-clone Admiral Schofield, both of whom are ranked between 250-300 nationally and neither of whom plays point guard.

Tyndall did show promise in recruiting before the NCAA story came out by getting a commitment from four-star Chris Clarke, and has shown promise down the road with a 2016 commitment from four-star Romello White.  The Vols have been in on other highly-rated players down the road as well.  But in the short-term, no program-changing help appears to be coming.  And Tennessee's greatest need remains point guard, where they just lost their only option to graduation who wasn't even a true option to begin with.  Next year's point guard is either someone currently on the roster who will play even more out of position and/or a junior college transfer to be named later.

I think the most realistic projection for the 2015-16 Vols is what we just experienced this year: a team that chases the NIT and will have a chance to catch it if they overachieve.  Tennessee will be better inside with a year of experience and weight on McGhee, Owens, and Carmichael.  But will the natural progression of the guys left on the roster give us better production than what we're losing with Richardson and may or may not gain or lose with no true point guard?

All of this is before we think about Tyndall possibly serving an in-season suspension.  So if the bar for next year's team is basically this year's team - .500 ball with an optimistic goal of the NIT - and then you're going to lose four of your biggest contributors with little to no help on the horizon in recruiting? I don't know if this is going to get worse before it gets better, but I don't know how long it's going to take for it to get better. I absolutely think Tyndall can coach X's and O's, get more out of his players, and has a system that can win in the SEC with enough talent (and not Kentucky talent or even Kentucky's bench talent, just more talent).  But how long is it going to take to get to that point?

Keeping Donnie Tyndall will be a risk even before we consider having a coach with what will likely be two NCAA strikes.  And I do think there can be rewards...but I don't know how long that will take.

What are realistic expectations for Tennessee Basketball in the long-term?  And how do we build a culture of healthy expectations in the midst of so much turmoil?  More to come...