Traumatic transition

InsideTennessee gives you everything you get from other sites, except better. Check out this insightful look at the trials the Hoop Vols endured during the recent coaching transition.

Late April and early May saw Tennessee basketball lacking enough players to field a starting lineup. When the roster dwindled to four scholarship athletes the program's short-term outlook was bleak and the long-term outlook wasn't a whole lot brighter.

"I can't even describe it. It was just crazy," junior forward Derek Reese recalled. "You couldn't play pickup in the offseason; there was just a lot of stuff we couldn't do. We didn't know what was going on. It was a crazy feeling, and it wasn't a good feeling, either. You didn't know how secure your spot (on the team) was."

Reese's fears of being run off by the new coaching staff were unfounded. Donnie Tyndall couldn't afford to show anyone the door, given the mass exodus that already had occurred:

First-team All-SEC pick Jarnell Stokes declared for the NBA Draft rather than return for his senior year of college ball.

Little-used sophomore forward Quinton Chievous announced plans to transfer.

All four November signees – Jordan Cornish, Larry Austin, C.J. Turman and Philip Cofer – secured releases from their 2014 scholarships.

All three 2013 freshman signees appeared ready to bolt when Darius Thompson and A.J. Davis secured releases from their scholarships and Robert Hubbs went home to West Tennessee to confer with his parents.

"I was kind of expecting Robert to leave, too, honestly, because they're all three like best friends," Vol senior Josh Richardson said of Hubbs, Davis and Thompson.

Admitting that he "thought about leaving a couple of times," Hubbs says the go-or-stay decision caused him a lot of anguish.

"It was really tough on me," he said. "I didn't know who we were going to bring in, who he was recruiting and all of that, so it was tough."

With four more members of the 2013-14 squad out of eligibility – starters Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Antonio Barton, plus backup D'Montre Edwards – Tennessee's scholarship roster consisted of Richardson, fellow senior Rawane Ndiaye, juniors Reese and Armani Moore.

Even the upbeat Richardson was feeling a bit unsettled, consulting his parents back in Oklahoma.

"They kept me level-headed about it," he said. "I tried not to get too worked up, not make any rash decisions, kind of see what everybody else was doing."

Basically, "everybody else" was leaving. With eight players departing and Hubbs having one foot out the door, Tennessee needed walk-ons Brandon Lopez and Galen Campbell involved merely to play three-on-three.

"I was a bit worried the first day of open gym," Richardson confided, later joking that he was "ready to play 40 a night" if there was no one on the bench to relieve him.

Gathering what was left of his roster, Tyndall tried to calm the players' fears.

"Right when he hit the ground he had a team meeting and told us he was happy to be here," Richardson recalled. "He said he was going to do everything he could to keep us comfortable."

The next step on the road to recovery occurred when Hubbs announced he would stick with the Vols.

"I was really happy to see him stay," Richardson said. "I think he can be a good player here."

Hubbs thinks so, too, which is why he chose to rejoin the fold after he and his parents hosted the new coaches.

"I just had to build a relationship with Coach Tyndall and his staff," Hubbs explained. "They came to my house and talked to my family, and I decided to stay here at Tennessee. I thought it was the best fit for me."

The key reason he decided to give Tyndall a chance, Hubbs added, was "Just getting to know him better – his style and system, how he was going to play on the offensive and defensive side."

While Hubbs was making his decision, Tyndall was making hay on the recruiting trail. He wound up signing eight newcomers to replace the eight departures. The 2014-15 Vols might be short on experience and familiarity but they will have a full complement of 13 scholarship players.

Calling the addition of eight new teammates "kind of weird," Richardson admitted that "It's been way different but I think we did a good job of adjusting and we're already meshing together as a team really well."

Except for Kentucky, which brings in a new group of five-stars each season, teams relying on seven or eight newcomers tend to struggle. Developing chemistry and cohesion are obvious problems.

"It's definitely going to be hard," Richardson said. "But I don't think we'll have too hard of a time this year. We're all cool. We all hang out together off the court already."

After seeing his new teammates in pick-up games, Hubbs thinks the 2014-15 Vols may surprise some people.

"We're very athletic," he said. "We're going to be way faster than last year. We can get up and down, pressure some guys and just have fun. That's what it's all about."

Richardson's first impression of the newcomers is equally positive.

"They work hard," he said. "I lifted weights with a couple of them, and we definitely worked hard in the weight room. They play hard. We've been playing pickup for the last week."

Two of the newcomers, Kevin Punter and Devon Baulkman, are junior college transfers with experience above the high school level. Two more, Ian Chiles of IUPUI and Eric McKnight of Florida Gulf Coast, are graduate transfers who already have three years of college experience apiece. That's a huge plus.

As Richardson noted: "It's nice to get some guys that are older, have college basketball experience and not bring in so many young freshman bodies."

Reese is even more excited about the season ahead.

"It's definitely going to be completely different from how we played last year," he said. "Last year was more of a slower pace, more trying to get the ball inside. This year we're going to run because we don't have Jeronne and Jarnell inside. We're going to run a lot, push it, score a lot of points, press. It should be an exciting time."

Certainly, the outlook is a lot more exciting than it was five weeks ago, when the Vols didn't even have enough scholarship players to field a starting lineup.

Robert Hubbs III

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