Vols facing tough opener

InsideTennessee is your go-to place for the best possible coverage of Vol hoops. Check out this insightful preview of Tennessee's opener versus Virginia Commonwealth:

Tennessee basketball coach Donnie Tyndall's plan to open the season against a soft opponent has been postponed due to a pressing engagement.

Tyndall's 2014-15 Vols face one of the premier full-court presses in America when they challenge No. 15 Virginia Commonwealth on Friday evening in the Legends Classic at Annapolis, Maryland. With converted small forward Josh Richardson learning to play the point, facing a pressing team right out of the gate represents a worst-case scenario for the Big Orange.

“That’s as big a challenge as you could possibly have, especially this early in the season, where your team is still trying to find its way,” Tyndall said this week. “Josh, who is playing the point-guard position for us, is still trying to find his way and evolve at that position. No question: It’s a huge challenge and a big task but I really believe our guys will be excited and ready to play.”

If the Vols are excited now, wait until they see the full-court pressure VCU will throw at them from the opening whistle to final horn. Tyndall went to great lengths in practice to try and simulate the tenacity of the Rams’ press.

“We’ve been practicing against six (pressing) players, and that’s been a nightmare,” junior guard Kevin Punter said. “It’s like no one’s really open but Coach told us from the jump ‘That’s what it’s going to feel like on the court,’ so stay calm, stay focused, stay poised and we’ll be fine.”

Tyndall conceded that his staff routinely utilized a six-man press in practice this week.

“We have. Sometimes seven,” he said. “It’s very realistic as to how they (Rams) play. They cover so much ground. They’re very athletic, they have great length, they play extremely hard, so playing against their 94 feet of pressure on every possession will certainly be the most important key to this game.”

The X factor is Richardson, who hasn’t seen significant time at point guard since he was a high school senior four years ago. He found the six-man press in practice quite taxing.

“Awwww, it’s been tough,” he said. “Everybody’s always covered when you’ve got six men on the floor – and you’re getting trapped – so it’s been tough, but I think it will make it a lot easier on us on Friday.”

Richardson played mostly small forward in 2013-14, so the transition to point guard is no small feat.

“It’s going to be a big challenge,” he said, “but I think I’m capable of taking care of the ball against pressure like that, and I’ve got teammates that are capable of helping me out.”

Punter, who is the No. 2 option at point guard, concedes that facing a pressing team like VCU right out of the gate represents a stern challenge.

“That comes up with it,” he said. “I signed up for it. Me and Josh is going to be ready. We’ll have a lot of pressure up top but we have great teammates around us that are going to step to the ball, have our backs. We’ll communicate, talk with one another, and we’re going to be all right.”

Richardson believes Tennessee’s exhibition opener helped prepare him for the pressure that is sure to come versus VCU.

“I think playing Pikeville in an exhibition was good for us,” Richardson said, “because they’re a pressing team, and that’s what we’ll be seeing on Friday.”

Pegged 13th among 14 SEC teams in preseason polls, the Vols are given little chance of upsetting Virginia Commonwealth or challenging for an NCAA Tournament bid this season. Tennessee’s coach isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, however.

“I think we have a chance if we continue to grow to surprise some people,” Tyndall said. “We certainly have some deficiencies when you think about not having a natural point guard, not having a go-to post scorer, although our bigs are certainly getting better. I think our team’s maybe a little bit ahead of where I anticipated but there’s certainly a long, long ways to go.”

GAME NOTES: Tyndall’s lineup is not yet set. Richardson will start at the point, with Punter and Robert Hubbs at the wings for sure. If the coach goes small he’ll start 6-foot-8 Derek Reese at center and 6-foot-5 Armani Moore at power forward. If Tyndall decides to go big he’ll open with 6-foot-10 Dominic Woodson at center and Reese at power forward…. Wing Devon Baulkman, slowed by a shoulder injury, did not make the trip to Annapolis. Tyndall said he hopes to him back in time for the Nov. 20 home opener versus Texas Southern…. The UT-VCU game will be televised by CBS with a 6:30 tipoff time.

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