The Vols carry an 8-4 record into Wednesday night’s SEC opener at Mississippi State, with five of the victories coming by 10 points or less. Tennessee beat Santa Clara 64-57 in Game 3, beat Kansas State 65-64 in Game 6, beat Tennessee Tech 61-58 in Game 8, beat Mercer 64-54 in Game 9 and beat East Tennessee State 71-61 in Game 12. The Vols had to rally from second-half deficits in three of those five wins.
First-year head coach Donnie Tyndall stands 5-1 in games decided by 10 points or less this season – the only loss being a 67-59 Game 5 setback to Marquette on a neutral court. That’s significant because winning close games is absolutely critical to success in major-college basketball.
Ask Cuonzo Martin. Tyndall’s predecessor fielded a Sweet 16 team in 2013-14, yet needed a play-in game just to qualify for the NCAA Tournament last March. Why? Because of Tennessee’s inability to win close games during the regular season.
The 2013-14 Vols lost by four points at Xavier, by eight to Texas-El Paso, by nine at Wichita State, by seven at home to North Carolina State, by one to Texas A&M in Knoxville and by three to the Aggies in College Station, by eight at Kentucky, by four at Vanderbilt, by nine at home to Florida, by five at Missouri and by seven to Florida in the SEC Tournament.
This annoying trend even carried over into NCAA Tournament play last March, when Tennessee caught fire and played about as well as anyone in college hoops. The Vols beat Iowa by 13 in Round 1, beat UMass by 19 in Round 2 and beat Mercer by 20 in Round 3. They played just one close game in The Dance – versus Michigan in the Sweet 16 – and lost by two points.
All told, the 2013-14 Vols were 3-12 in games decided by 10 points or less. So, the fact the 2014-15 Vols are 5-1 in such games is a very positive development.
"I think in all of those games we have done a little something different to win,” Tyndall said. “Against Tennessee Tech, we had to execute the last eight minutes in the half court offensively. Mercer was a team that made us play against mixing and matching defenses and kept us off balance a little bit. Against East Tennessee State we had to do a good job – which we didn't do at all times – of guarding the 3-point line.
“Each team brought a little something different to the table, and yet we were able to find a way to win.”
Tennessee’s 8-4 record is surprising, given the adversity this team has had to overcome. Three players appear out for the year due to injury – senior guard Brandon Lopez (torn ACL), senior guard Ian Chiles (shoulder) and freshman forward Jabari McGhee (broken foot). The team’s only center, sophomore Dominic Woodson, left the program in December and the team’s only point guard, freshman Braxton Bonds, recently was denied an NCAA appeal for immediate eligibility because he attended a few classes at Liberty University last summer.
Bottom line: Tennessee is down to nine players but those nine exhibit a lot of toughness and togetherness.
"I think we have a very resilient group,” Tyndall said. “When you have as many newcomers as we have, it usually takes a year or two to get that base in your team. We are very fortunate. We have a very receptive group of kids that are coachable. They have bought in early. The chemistry has been good, so we have been able to overcome some tough spots during games to stay competitive every night.”
He’s right. Down 12 early in the second half of Game 7 against Butler, the Vols kept their composure and rallied to win by 12. That’s just one example of this team’s resilience. There are several more.
“We’re down 18 (at halftime) to VCU, and that (deficit) could have easily went to 30,” Tyndall noted. “Instead, we cut it to eight three different times. Our team never quit competing. We played Kansas, who is a top-10 team, and they are up 13. Again, we could have stopped playing and competing, but we actually tied it up with about five minutes to go. The other night against ETSU, we go down 13-0 and could have easily felt sorry for ourselves. We didn't.
“I think we have a resilient bunch for our lack of experience and our youth."
The Vols also have a close-knit group, especially for a team featuring seven first-year players. That’s the Tyndall way.
“When you watch our huddle and timeouts, our guys' arms are around each other,” the coach noted. “When guys come out of the game, they give guys high-fives all the way to the end of the bench, and then they come back and sit by coaches.
“Some people may say that’s corny or ‘They don't do that in the NBA,’ but we emphasize that. When someone doesn't do that in a game we point it out in the film room like a missed block-out or a turnover. When you make sure that is important to you, it becomes important to your players."
Does team chemistry help win games? The Vols’ 5-1 record in games decided by 10 points or less suggests that maybe it does.
GAME NOTES: Mississippi State brings a 7-6 record into the game. The Bulldogs have been up and down. They won their first five games, lost the next five, then won two of their last three.... The Vols are 27-27 all-time at Starkville.... Tennessee is riding a four-game winning streak during which it has allowed just 54.8 points per contest…. The Vols’ greatest weakness is defending the 3-pointer but Mississippi State shoots just 26.5 percent from 3…. The Big Orange has won 12 of its last 15 SEC openers – the losses coming at Arkansas in 2011, versus Kentucky in 2003 and versus Ole Miss in 2013. Tennessee opened SEC play last season by winning on the road at LSU…. Tyndall and MSU coach Rick Ray are the youngest head coaches in the SEC. Both are 44 years old, with Tyndall being younger by 37 days…. Tennessee won last year’s game in Starkville 75-68…. Wednesday’s game tips off at 8 p.m. Central (9 Eastern) with TV coverage provided by the SEC Network.