It's interesting to note the three players in Tennessee's basketball drama all relatively struggled this year. Bruce Pearl and Auburn had a lower winning percentage this year (15-20) than they did last year (14-16). Cuonzo Martin and California missed the NCAA/NIT for the first time in eight years. Donnie Tyndall and Tennessee missed the NCAA/NIT for the first time in ten years.
One year after all the drama, what have we learned?
Football is still king
When you're coming off an appearance in the last BCS Championship Game, your football program is printing money. And when your football program is printing money, you can share more of it with your fancy new basketball coach. You can even take a swing at the guy coming off the show-cause. Auburn had the cash and the collateral to go get Bruce Pearl. Tennessee was never going back down that road, but the Vols also made their fourth consecutive mid-major hire in Donnie Tyndall. This leads us to...
Tennessee shops exclusively in the mid-major aisle
The Vols, according to chatter at the time, never seriously pursued the higher-dollar names or major conference candidates, going after Louisiana Tech's Michael White before getting Donnie Tyndall from Southern Miss. Keep this in mind if the Vols have to or choose to move on from Donnie Tyndall in the NCAA's wake. In his final season Cuonzo Martin was the 10th highest paid coach in the SEC, despite Tennessee being a top-tier basketball program in this league. Until football wins or the mood changes in the athletic department, don't expect Tennessee to back up the truck for anyone.
The first year is almost always hard
Turns out we weren't just spoiled by what Bruce Pearl did in 2006, but also by what Cuonzo Martin did in 2012. Both of those Tennessee teams overachieved despite tons of turnover, and the 2015 Vols overachieved as well just to get to .500. Of the three this season Cuonzo finished with the best record, Pearl with the best finish, and I would argue Tyndall got the most from his roster. Pearl's first Tennessee squad looks better every year, but they had the SEC's all-time three point leader and an eight year NBA vet. Many of us, including me, expected more from this year's Auburn team in part because we still fail to fully appreciate how good and how special that first Tennessee team was. Cuonzo's first Tennessee squad took time to adjust, rallying to the bubble and an NIT win. They felt better and were better than this year's UT squad, who started fast before a bumpy finish. The late slide almost certainly took away some of the appreciation for the work this team did, though the win over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament helped end the year on a positive note. Cuonzo's Golden Bears started 10-1 but finished 8-14. I think what we saw from these three teams this year is far closer to normal than what Bruce and Cuonzo were able to do in their first year in Knoxville.
This works both ways. On the one hand, some might be surprised to know this year's Tennessee squad played a slower pace than any of Cuonzo Martin's. Those who complained about having to watch last year's team might be surprised to know (or remember) they were 17th nationally in offensive efficiency in Ken Pomeroy's ratings and 7th overall, a higher finish than any of Bruce Pearl's squads. On the other hand, many assumed Donnie Tyndall's squad would be far worse than .500 and far worse than 10th in the SEC. The Vols were competitive and played meaningful basketball all year, chasing postseason play until their final loss of the season.
Actions have consequences
Cuonzo Martin won more games in his first three years in the SEC than any coach in the last 15 years that isn't John Calipari or Bruce Pearl. "Isn't Bruce Pearl" was the thing, of course. But the actions of both some in the fanbase and some in the administration had a significant percentage to do with our Sweet 16 20+ game winner trying to go to Marquette and then settling for the West Coast. Most of the 30,000 people who signed the petition left their virtual signature when Tennessee's season still had a chance to be successful, which means when it was ultimately successful, it couldn't be fully enjoyed by all. Tennessee watched the guy who led all that walk, then replaced him with a guy who can flat out coach basketball, but is in the thick of an NCAA investigation that could force another reset and put the program even further behind. Meanwhile, attendance at Thompson-Boling is doing this:
So we're not in BuzzBall territory, but we're trending in that direction. At least half the people who signed that petition apparently couldn't be bothered to come to the games this year.
Are we better off than we were one year ago?
You can't fully answer this question, because we don't know exactly where we are with Donnie Tyndall and the NCAA. Obviously with Tyndall there's been a complete reset, similar to what's happening at Auburn and Berkeley. These guys need their guys to run their system, etc. I think Cuonzo was easily a safer bet, and Tyndall hasn't won enough anywhere to say definitively he has greater reward to go along with his greater risks. So much of the answer to this question lies in the hands of the NCAA. The more important question is:
Has the program taken a step (or steps) backward?
Not because we were 16-16 and missed the NCAA/NIT. If you're not one of the top ten programs in the country, everybody has to reload or deal with player cycles from time to time. But Bruce Pearl built an expectation here, and Cuonzo was able to continue that. I believe Donnie Tyndall could continue moving Tennessee forward, but he can't recruit in the present and may lose the opportunity to do so in the future. One year later, we are in some ways still in limbo, still waiting to see who our head coach will be next year, and still waiting to see if Tennessee Basketball can move forward.