The irony is that Reese may have been the one scholarship player who never gave leaving a second thought. Not once, even for a flickering second.
“No. This is where I want to play,” Reese said recently. “I love Tennessee, and I want to play here.”
Having grown up in one of America’s great cities — balmy Orlando, home of Disney World — he retains strong ties to that city. Still, he considers Knoxville his second home.
“It’s not like Orlando but I love being here, and I feel like it’s the best opportunity for my dream to come true,” Reese said.
Four Vol teammates and all four November signees disagreed, choosing to bolt following the 2013-14 season. Jarnell Stokes left in favor of the NBA Draft. The other seven bolted in the wake of Martin’s departure. Robert Hubbs nearly left, and even rising senior Josh Richardson, a two-year starter, admitted entertaining thoughts of doing something “rash.”
Not Reese. He found the hiring of Southern Miss’ Donnie Tyndall to replace Martin somewhat intriguing. His former AAU coaches, Willie Anderson and Reggie Tucker, played for LSU when Tyndall was a Tiger assistant under John Brady.
“At first, when we didn’t know who was coming I was very upset,” Reese recalled. “When Coach Tyndall was hired I thought ‘This is a small world’ because my AAU coaches played for him at LSU. That helped me feel more comfortable with Coach Tyndall and the coaching staff.”
The more he learned about Tyndall, the more Reese’s comfort level grew.
“I’d heard a bunch of stuff about him — that he was a fired-up and aggressive guy,” the player said. “I heard he makes you better … he’s going to push you. That’s all I kept hearing: Everyone was telling me ‘He’s going to push you as hard as he can. He’s not going to sugar-coat anything.’ I feel that’s what you need to be successful. You need a coach that will push you, no matter what.”
Inheriting a program in chaos, Tyndall’s first order of business was to try and restore some order.
“We had a meeting where he talked to us about his philosophy, which I thought was very important for him to do,” Reese said. “He told us to come talk to him. He made sure we felt the comfort of knowing he wanted to know how we felt. If you want to leave … anything … just go talk to him.”
The new coach took another big step toward stabilizing the program by successfully re-recruiting Hubbs, who had one foot out the door. Tyndall’s tenacity in salvaging Hubbs made a very positive impression.
“You never give up. You can just see the hard work and dedication Coach Tyndall puts into everything he does,” Reese said, adding that Hubbs’ return “is going to help us a lot.”
Tyndall is known as a coach who inspires tremendous loyalty. His players at Morehead State and Southern Miss reportedly would run through a wall for him. Reese can empathize.
"I love Tennessee, and I want to play here." — Derek Reese
“I completely agree with that,” he said. “I can tell that Coach Tyndall really cares about us. He told us in one of our team meetings that he would basically put us (equal to) his wife and kids. That shows us he wants us to be better as a person and on the court.”
Tyndall is nothing like his predecessor. Whereas Martin was businesslike and reserved, Tyndall is zany and outgoing. Their defensive styles are truly polar opposites. Tyndall likes to press and play zone defense, two things Martin used only as last resorts. The obvious question: How equipped are Martin’s recruits to play Tyndall’s system?
“We’re equipped 100-percent,” Reese said. “Everybody’s about the same height, long and athletic, so that will help us a lot to press and then get back. We’ve got the length to press like Louisville, and I feel like that will help us put teams in trouble with how long and athletic we are.”
Reese failed to exploit his length and athleticism last season. The 6-foot-8, 220-pounder played in just 24 of 37 games, averaging 10.9 minutes, 2.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per contest. He shot a mere 35.3 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from 3. He needs to improve his strength and his skills in order to be a major contributor in 2014-15.
“My goal is to be better at all aspects of the game,” he said. “I want to play about 230. Playing down low I was undersized a little bit with the bigger guys. I want to get stronger. I want to work on my shot. I feel like I wasn’t consistent enough last year, so that’s something I really want to focus on.”
Reese played the 3 (small forward) and the 4 (power forward) last season. He has no idea which Tyndall will want him to play this season.
“Wherever he wants to play me,” Reese said. “Whatever I can do to help this team win.”
That’s the kind of response you’d expect from a guy who is proud to admit “I love Tennessee.”