The new kid, in this case, was Willie Carmichael, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound freshman with the length, hops, timing and aggressiveness to be a superior shot-rejecter. As for “The Block,” it was one of the best you’ll ever see.
Running the floor in transition, Texas Southern’s 6-foot-9, 220-pound Nick Shepherd took a pass about eight feet to the right of the basket with an open path to the rim. Carmichael saw the open path and quickly raced in from the opposite side to close it. The two players met above the rim, with Carmichael forcefully slapping the ball out of Shepherd’s right hand and off the backboard.
A groggy Tennessee crowd sprang to life at this point, roaring its approval. Asked later if he heard the fan response, Carmichael flashed a soft grin and replied: “Yes, sir. There was energy going through my body when the crowd went crazy.”
The spectacular block ignited the Vols, as well as their fans. Tennessee converted the shot rejection into a fast-break bucket and went on to win 70-58.
“It just felt good to give energy to my team, make them strive to get better on defense,” Carmichael said. “After the block we got a transition basket.”
That was precisely the type of high-motor play that led Donnie Tyndall to sign Carmichael twice – last November as head coach at Southern Miss and again last April as head coach at Tennessee.
“That’s why he recruited me to come here,” the player said, “and that’s what I have to do to get playing time.”
Growing up in the Orlando suburb of Apopka, Florida, Carmichael packed just 184 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame as a high school senior. Many recruiters saw a tweener – lacking the heft to play inside and the perimeter skills to play outside. Tyndall saw another Kenneth Faried, a two-time Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year for Tyndall at Morehead State who went on to be a first-round NBA Draft pick.
Flattered by the comparison, Carmichael signed with Tyndall at Southern Miss one year ago, then got a release from USM and followed him to Tennessee last spring. Carmichael worked his way onto the first team mere days into preseason drills. As he gained weight, however, he lost his explosiveness.
“My body broke down, and I could barely jump,” Carmichael recalled. “Putting on 20 pounds, my legs couldn’t adjust to all of that.”
Still sluggish, he came off the bench in the two exhibition games, then played just four reserve minutes in the season-opening loss to Virginia Commonwealth. He insists he wasn’t insulted.
“It didn't bother me,” Carmichael said. “I can still contribute to the team by being the biggest cheerleader that I can be. It did motivate me in the gym, though."
Obviously. He practiced so hard and so well after the cameo appearance against VCU that Tyndall had no choice but to start him in the home opener against Texas Southern.
“His minutes come out of practice,” Carmichael said. “That’s why I love playing for him.”
That’s fitting because Tyndall loves coaching Carmichael. In addition to comparing him to Faried, the Vol coach recently noted that the lanky freshman “has a chance to be an All-SEC type guy by the time he’s a junior. Like I have said many times, there is a lot of his game that reminds me of Kenneth (Faried).”
Carmichael finds such praise flattering but also motivating.
“I just have to keep working with (strength) coach Todd (Moyer) to get stronger,” the player said, “and listen to everything Coach Tyndall says and stay humble.”
Given Carmichael’s high-revving motor, Tyndall was shocked when the rangy rookie suddenly looked lethargic two weeks into preseason drills.
“His body kind of hit a wall,” the coach said. “He didn't have that same energy and that same motor-running toughness for about a two-week stretch where some of these other guys passed him by.”
That changed in practice last week, resulting in a dynamic 10-point, 7-rebound, 2-block performance against Texas Southern. As Tyndall noted: “Willie was back to being the old Willie Carmichael that he was the first month of the school year.”
Indeed he was, especially on The Block, a play that has been splashed throughout The Internet. Seeing himself all over the world-wide web is heady stuff, even for an even-keel guy like Willie Carmichael.
“It feels good,” he said, smiling sheepishly, “but that’s the type of (defensive-minded) player I am: I seen him going up for a dunk, and I ran to go get it. It felt good to see that you got it.”
Like Tyndall, Vol senior Josh Richardson sees a ton of untapped potential in Carmichael.
“He’s not the most skilled big man but he brings a lot of energy to the court all the time,” Richardson said. “I don’t think he knows yet (how good he can be) but I can see the potential. He’s shown flashes of it. I’ve seen him be dominant in practice before.”
With another year of strength training and another 20 pounds of muscle, Carmichael just might be dominant in games one of these days.