Heading into Tuesday night’s game at South Carolina, the Vols already have two more SEC road wins than most experts anticipated. The Big Orange beat Mississippi State 61-47 Jan. 7 in Starkville and bumped Missouri 59-51 Saturday in Columbia. That 2-0 mark is pretty good for a team that lacks height, heft, experience, top-drawer talent and depth.
What the Vols don’t lack is toughness, and that appears to be overcoming all of their obvious shortcomings.
Leading Mississippi State just 53-45 with two minutes left in Starkville, Tennessee closed the game on an 8-2 run that sealed the victory. Trailing Missouri 43-46 with five minutes left in Columbia, the Vols closed with a 16-5 rally that turned the outcome. So, why does Tennessee tend to dominate at crunch time?
"I think it's a combination of our mental and physical toughness,” first-year head coach Donnie Tyndall told InsideTennessee. “We condition very, very hard in the fall. I don't know too many teams in the country that condition as hard as we do.”
Quipping that “I think every guy on our team quit about three times each,” Tyndall noted that his pre-season boot camp paid huge dividends – psychologically, as well as physically.
“When you get through that, you feel like you can get through about anything,” he said. “Our approach – the way we challenge guys in the film room and the way we practice every day – helps you to be a pretty tough team…. If you look at our team, most nights we have been a little bit tougher than our opponent. I don't know if that'll be the case (versus South Carolina). We’ll see.”
Tyndall is so gung-ho about conditioning that he oversees that phase himself.
"We have a great strength coach (Todd Moyer) who grinds them in the weight room, but as the head coach, I handle conditioning sessions,” Tyndall said. “A lot of head coaches don't do that.”
Each Monday and Friday during the preseason Tennessee’s players would do the “ladder” drill, then run sprints until their tongues were hanging out.
“It starts with about 90 sprints on the first workout,” Tyndall said. “By the time we’re done about six or seven weeks later, we’re running 150 to 160 sprints, all with a set time. If they don't make the time, they run it over. If anybody ever quits, gets sick, gets dizzy, falls out or all the things I've seen over nine years of being a head coach, they make it up the next morning.
“Guys don't quit when they get through 80 percent of the workout because they know it doesn't get any easier. I think that just builds mental and physical toughness."
That appears to be the case because Tennessee tends to be the tougher team at crunch time. Except for a loss to Alabama which saw the ice-cold Vols score just one basket over the final 14 minutes, Tennessee’s stamina typically pays big dividends in the late stages of home games. For instance, the Vols closed Game 7 against Butler on a 13-4 run that produced a 67-55 victory and closed Game 12 versus ETSU on a 19-5 run that produced a 71-61 win.
Although Tennessee plays a taxing pace featuring 40 minutes of full-court pressure, junior forward Armani Moore says the games are a breeze compared to the practices. That was especially true of the pre-season workouts.
"Conditioning was very tough,” Moore said. “I had never had a conditioning session that was just constant running, especially without breaks. Some guys would quit and have to do makeup runs. Through it all, we were able to gain a level of confidence that if we were able to get through that, then there was nothing we couldn't get through."
The Vols’ 11-5 overall record (3-1 SEC) is a testament to the toughness they developed during those grueling preseason workouts. It certainly isn’t a testament to their talent.
Mincing no words, Tyndall summarized the situation in two candid sentences:
“The reason we are at where we're at is because we're a gritty, grimy team that is coachable and tough and has found a way to have great chemistry and play together. If any of that changes, we'll start failing very, very quickly.”
GAME NOTES: Vol senior Josh Richardson needs just seven points to reach 1,000 for his career. He is coming off a season-low 8-point outing at Missouri…. South Carolina brings a 10-6 overall record and a 1-3 SEC mark into Tuesday night’s game…. Tennessee leads the all-time series 40-23 and has won the last 14 meetings. The average margin was 13 points (75.2 to 62.2)…. The Vols prevailed twice in 2014, winning 72-53 in the regular-season meeting at Knoxville and 59-44 in the SEC Tournament at Atlanta. UT leads 24-7 in Knoxville; South Carolina leads 14-13 in Columbia and 3-2 on neutral courts…. Tuesday's tipoff is set for 9 p.m. The game may be viewed at ESPNU.