Of course, that's three more lettermen than he inherited when he took the Southern Miss reins two years ago. Undaunted by that challenge, he surrounded those four returning lettermen with some solid junior-college transfers and went 27-10 in his debut season at Hattiesburg.
No one is suggesting Tyndall will go 27-10 in his debut season at Knoxville but you can make a pretty strong case that Year 1 on The Hill looks no gloomier than Year 1 in Hattiesburg did at the time. Check it out:
At Southern Miss, Tyndall was following Larry Eustachy, whose departure for Colorado State left behind four lettermen from a team that went 25-9. At Tennessee, Tyndall is following Cuonzo Martin, whose departure for Cal left behind seven lettermen from a team that went 24-13.
Rashard McGill, 15 by Jonathan Mills, five by Cedric Jenkins and four by Neil Watson. At Tennessee, Tyndall's seven returnees combined for 47 starts last season – 36 by Josh Richardson, 10 by Darius Thompson and one by A.J. Davis.
At Southern Miss, Tyndall returned just one double-figure scorer – guard Neil Watson (12.3 points per game). At Tennessee, Tyndall returns just one double-figure scorer – guard Josh Richardson (10.3 points per game).
At Southern Miss, Tyndall inherited a team that made the NCAA Tournament but lost its opener the previous season. At Tennessee, Tyndall inherited a team that won three NCAA Tournament games before losing in the Sweet 16.
At Southern Miss, Tyndall inherited an X Factor – Dwayne Davis, a 6-foot-6 junior college transfer who missed the entire 2011-12 season due to academic issues. Cleared to play in 2012-13, he promptly led the Golden Eagles in scoring at 16 points per game. At Tennessee, Tyndall may have inherited an X Factor in 6-foot-6 Robert Hubbs, a five-star high school signee who missed most of last season due to shoulder surgery. A prolific scorer in high school, he conceivably could be Tennessee's top point producer in 2014-15 … as Davis was at USM in 2012-13.
Although Davis played a key role in the 27 games USM won in 2012-13, most of the credit goes to the guy who managed to blend four returnees and a bunch of newcomers into a cohesive team: Tyndall.
"It was like a huge jig-saw puzzle that only he could put together," said Drew White, publisher of Scout's Southern Miss website. "He inherited the least experienced basketball team in the NCAA that year."
So how did Tyndall overcome USM's glaring shortages of depth and experience to win 27 games in his rookie season at Hattiesburg?
"He does an incredible job of getting his players to buy into the system quickly," White said. "That is what always stood out to me. The players would run through a brick wall for him. He knew exactly what buttons to push with which players to push them to the edge and get the most out of his team."
Because his 2012-13 team lacked quality depth, Tyndall relied heavily on the five starters and a couple of key reserves. Still, fatigue was rarely a problem.
Several more factors suggest that Tennessee has hired a winner in Donnie Tyndall.
Whereas Cuonzo Martin's 2013-14 Vols tended to self-destruct in close games, going 4-12 in overtime and single-digit contests last season, Tyndall showed a knack for winning the tight ones in Hattiesburg. Incredibly, his first two games at Southern Miss were a 67-64 overtime defeat of Western Kentucky and a 62-60 overtime win at Georgia. He wound up posting a 22-9 record in overtime/single-digit games during his two years with the Golden Eagles.
Two major differences between Martin and Tyndall are philosophical.
Martin probably lost a few games he could've won at Tennessee if he'd been willing to resort to some zone defense on occasion. Conversely, Tyndall plays matchup zone from opening tip to final horn. Secondly, Martin's teams play almost exclusively half-court defense. Tyndall, on the other hand, uses a three-quarter court press after each made basket in an attempt to disrupt the opponent. Result: Southern Miss ranked eighth nationally in steals last season with 294; Tennessee ranked 193rd with 192.
Yet another key distinction between Martin and Tyndall is early-season performance. Whereas Martin's teams routinely floundered until mid-February, Tyndall's teams tend to click much sooner. His initial USM squad began 18-4. His second Golden Eagle team raced to a 14-2 start, with one of the losses coming on the road at defending national champ Louisville.
"His first team jelled on a trip to the Bahamas where they played a tournament in the beginning of the season," White recalled. "They came back with one heartbeat and were very much a blue-collar team that got it done with defense and rebounding, the main theme of Coach Tyndall's teams. He seemed to just know the right guys to bring in and where to plug them in."
Discuss Donnie Tyndall's challenge with InsideTennessee staff and subscribers by clicking here.