Surprise No. 1: Vol senior Josh Richardson, a small forward in 2013-14 and a shooting guard in preseason projections, played mostly point guard in the exhibition opener against the University of Pikeville, finishing with 15 points, 5 assists and 3 turnovers.
Surprise No. 2: Junior Armani Moore nearly doubled his career high of 9 points by sinking 8 of 10 shots and totaling 17 points in helping the Big Orange prevail 80-62.
Surprise No. 3: The most impressive player on the floor was Pikeville’s K.K. Simmons, who kept his team in the game by sinking 10 of 19 shots – 7 of 13 from 3 – and leading all scorers with 30 points.
Surprise No. 4: Tennessee’s fast pace affected the home team more than the visitors. The Vols were guilty of 18 turnovers and forced just 11. “Too many turnovers, not enough steals,” Tyndall said.
Surprise No. 5: Tennessee outshot Pikeville 60.8 to 35.0 percent and dominated the backboards 40-24, yet never managed to break the game open against the NAIA foe.
Surprise No. 6: Following the win, Tyndall ripped his own game-management abilities after allowing 10 Vols to play double-digit minutes.
“This is the worst I’ve felt in nine years as a head coach in regards to having a flow of the game,” he said. “I never felt like I was letting guys play through a mistake. I didn’t take ‘em out because of a mistake. It’s just that, other than Josh, they were in and out, in and out, in and out.”
Basically, the coach can’t settle on a rotation until he knows who his best seven or eight players are. Right now he has no clue.
“There’s so many spots that are dead even that I’m trying to give everybody a chance to get it (their skill) on film, then watch it tonight and see what we think,” Tyndall said. “There are just too many guys to play that many minutes. That being said, we’re pretty balanced right now.”
That’s a fact. In addition to Moore and Richardson, the Vols got double-digit scoring from freshman Detrick Mostella (11 points). Robert Hubbs, back from a shoulder surgery that caused him to miss most of 2013-14, scored 8 points and dished out 4 assists. JUCO transfer Kevin Punter, who split time between shooting guard and point guard, chipped in 7 points. Frontcourt starters Dominic Woodson (6 points, 5 rebounds) and Derek Reese (6 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists) had their moments.
After indicating all preseason that Punter would be the point guard, the staff shocked a lot of people by giving that assignment to Richardson for the exhibition opener.
“We talked all preseason about using Kevin Punter, then one day we kind of threw Josh out there, and he was pretty solid,” Tyndall said. “He embraces that role more than maybe I thought he would. It puts the ball in our best player’s hands more often…. We just don’t have that natural playmaker, so we’re going to have to tweak some things as we move along to help with that.”
Richardson played primarily point guard as a senior in high school but had scarcely played it in college before Monday night. Still, he felt fairly comfortable there.
“It was OK. I was expecting it,” he said. “Coach Tyndall had been playing me at the point in practice a lot, so I was prepared for it. I knew about three weeks ago that I was going to be playing predominantly at the point.”
As the Vols’ leading returning scorer, Richardson must set up shots for others without neglecting to seek his own shots. That’s no small challenge.
“Today was my first day playing there, so it was pretty tough,” he conceded. “But I feel like I started figuring it out toward the end of the game.”
Richardson said he has been watching a lot of the higher-scoring NBA point guards in order to “figure out good times to score, good times to distribute.” His primary role models, he said, are Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose.
While Richardson’s tenure at the point was surprising, Moore’s production from the power forward spot was even more so. Known for his defense and shot-blocking, he was widely viewed as an offensive liability. Not on this night, however.
“This is the perfect system for him,” Richardson said. “He’s a mismatch at power forward. Just like he showed tonight, he can take bigger guys off the dribble any time he wants to.”
Moore shrugged off his big night, crediting it to “being in the right spot at the right time. Josh did a great job of finding me in the gaps of the defense, and I was able to finish a whole lot of baskets tonight.”
Even with Richardson and Moore playing well, Tennessee struggled most of the night. The Vols looked downright awful in the opening minutes, falling behind 15-6 as Simmons nailed three 3-pointers. Tennessee launched a 15-2 rally to go up 21-17, then scored the last 10 points of the half to take a 42-31 lead to the break. The lead peaked at 24 points (73-49) with just over five minutes left.
“Those first eight to 10 minutes were tough to watch,” Tyndall conceded. “We’ve got a million miles to go.”