Tyndall sees UT 'very competitive'

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JOHNSON CITY — He's losing quality players Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon to graduation. He's losing rising senior Jarnell Stokes to the NBA Draft. He's losing rising sophomores Darius Thompson and A.J. Davis to transfer and losing all four November signees to other schools.

Given all of the losing new Tennessee basketball coach Donnie Tyndall is doing off the court, he could do a lot of losing on the court in the season ahead. Rather than lower expectations by proclaiming 2014-15 a rebuilding year, however, Tyndall dares to be optimistic. Recruiting like a man possessed, he has added eight newcomers – including Tariq Owens on Wednesday – and sparked hopes that the season ahead won't be the dumpster fire many observers project.

"It's been four weeks (since he took the reins on April 22) and I haven't had a chance to breathe, but it's been fun," he said during Tuesday night's Big Orange Caravan stop at Munsey United Methodist Church. "I told people when we took this thing over that there would be bumps in the road and there would be challenges thrown our way, and there have been. But, all things considered, we're very, very proud of the recruiting class that we've pulled in. They're good kids, good players that, in my humble opinion, will make us very competitive in our first year."

That's right. He said "very competitive in our first year." With the anticipated departure of Rawane Ndiaye leaving Josh Richardson, Armani Moore, Robert Hubbs and Derek Reese as the only scholarship holdovers from the 2013-14 roster, "very competitive" sounds like a pipe dream. History suggests it isn't, however. Tyndall inherited just four scholarship returnees when he took the Southern Miss reins two years ago, yet somehow he blended them with a bunch of newcomers and went 27-10.

The obvious question: How does a coach develop chemistry and cohesion among a group of total strangers so quickly?

"I think the biggest thing is, we spend a lot of time with our players off the floor," Tyndall told InsideTennessee. "We're very, very demanding on the floor. We don't accept anything but excellence or the pursuit of perfection. We hold guys accountable to a high standard. If you do that you have to spend time away from the floor. Our slogan every time we break a team huddle is ‘Family.'

"I think, as we get to know each other and build relationships with each other, the chemistry is formed. That's what happened at Southern Miss, and I think the same thing will happen here at Tennessee."

Tennessee's chemistry would be a lot better if the Vols had a proven point guard. They don't, now that Darius Thompson has announced he's transferring to Virginia.

"If he decides not to come back, then we'll go with Ian Chiles and maybe our walk-on Brandon (Lopez)," Tyndall said. "I think Kevin Punter and Devon Baulkman both can slide over and play some point guard, as well."

Chiles is a fifth-year senior shooting guard who is transferring in from IUPUI. Punter was a first-team Junior College All-America shooting guard for State Fair Community College last winter and fellow JUCO Baulkman played small forward, shooting guard and some point guard for Gulf Coast State College last winter.

When IT asked for his thoughts on the point-guard situation, Tyndall replied: "Obviously, if Darius doesn't come back, you would say on paper that's a weak link to our team. I understand that but I wasn't going to take a guy just to take a guy at that position.

"We could've had a couple of high school prospects but I didn't want to take a guy that would hurt us getting the next really good point guard. We went with the fifth-year guy in Ian, and I think he's more than capable."

Still, Chiles is a natural shooting guard whose experience at point guard is limited.

"He's played some point at junior college and at IUPUI," Tyndall noted. "I won't say it's his natural position – he's kind of got that scorer's mentality – but we've talked at length about his role on this team. He's going to have to be the quarterback and sacrifice some in terms of his scoring in order to make his teammates better.

"I think he's strong enough and tough enough to take care of the ball. Will he get that natural point-guard leadership role into his play right away? (Shrugs). It'll probably be a transition for him, but I think he'll be fine in time."

In addition to point guard, Tennessee is suspect at the post positions due to the departure of 2013-14 starters Stokes (15.1 points, 10.6 rebounds per game) and Maymon (9.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg). Tyndall believes 6-foot-9, 225-pound Eric McKnight, a fifth-year transfer from Florida Gulf Coast University with immediate eligibility, can help soften the blow a bit.

"He's a long, athletic guy that gives our team some size on the front line," the coach said. "Obviously, we need that because we don't have a lot of size. He's got the experience of having played in big games that I think will pay dividends for our team. He's athletic and can block shots, which I think is very important in our style of play at the back of our press and in the middle of our zone."

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