Vols Basketball: Why the 2014-15 Season Shouldn’t Have Been a Surprise

The Vols basketball team finished a unimpressive season Saturday evening, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. PHOTO: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers just finished their first season under head coach Donnie Tyndall, and it was one of the most underwhelming seasons since before Bruce Pearl took over before the 2005-06 season.

For the first time since the 2004-05 season, the Vols finished the regular season at .500 or worse. That team, one full of future Tennessee household names such as Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, and Dane Bradshaw, finished 14-17 and 6-10 in the SEC. This year’s Vols team finished 15-15 in the regular season, going 7-11 in conference play. The amount of future talent and potential on this team is still in question, however.

But why exactly did the Vols have such a mediocre season this year? The answer is a multifaceted one.

This Vols’ team came on the heels of a 2013-14 team that made it to the Sweet Sixteen and won 24 games. But four of the pivotal members of that team, Antonio Barton, Jeronne Maymon, Jordan McRae, and Jarnell Stokes, all graduated (or left early in Stokes’s case).

After head coach Cuonzo Martin left for Cal, more departures from the roster ensued. Rising sophomores A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson announced they would transfer before the start of the 2014-15 season, leaving the Vols without a big-bodied power forward or a point guard. Rising junior guard Quinton Chievous would also not join the Vols for the 2014-15 season.

Not only that, but Martin’s entire 4-man recruiting class decided not to sign with the Vols after all. That left the Vols with 5 returning scholarship players (Robert Hubbs III, Brandon Lopez, Armani Moore, Derek Reese, and Josh Richardson) . Those 5 players averaged 14.9 minutes per game in 2013-14, and the massive bulk of those came from rising senior guard Josh Richardson.

Needless to say, these Vols were going to be inexperienced.

Donnie Tyndall was hired by the University of Tennessee on April 22, and he started recruiting immediately. He brought in 6 players and Eric McKnight as a transfer forward, and he would later add two transfer players, guard Ian Chiles and center Dominic Woodson. And by late July, point guard Braxton Bonds was announced as a walk-on for this season.

But half of the players Donnie Tyndall brought in either wouldn’t see the court or would see extremely limited time this season.

Eric McKnight, a 6-9 forward, was denied his graduate transfer request due to “disciplinary action” issues while at Florida Gulf Coast the previous season. During the season, it was announced that Braxton Bonds would not be allowed to play for the Vols immediately, forcing him to sit out the season with eligibility to play in the upcoming 2015-16 season.

Then there were the injuries and transfers.

Returning senior guard Brandon Lopez suffered a torn ACL in late July, ending his season even before it began. Ian Chiles played in 3 games and scored 2 points before having season-ending shoulder surgery. Dominic Woodson played in just 4 games before deciding to transfer from UT mere months after transferring there from Memphis. And freshman forward Jabari McGhee played in 8 games and made 2 starts, averaging 4.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game before sustaining a right foot injury that would eventually keep him out the entire season.

That’s 6 players that either never saw the court or played very little in Tyndall’s first season as Tennessee’s head coach. And when it was all said and done, that left Tyndall with 9 scholarship players for the majority of the season. And over half of those players were newcomers.

But for Tyndall, all the players might as well have been newcomers. He hadn’t coached any of these players before, and he brought with him a whole new offensive and defensive style he had to teach the entire team. Even teaching a seasoned, veteran-savvy group a whole new way of playing on both sides of the ball would be difficult, let alone a young, inexperienced team.

And once the roster had been decimated by injuries, transfers, and denied requests, Tennessee was left with a team searching for an identity.

Josh Richardson, who had never played point guard in his career, was forced to play the most pivotal position on the team. The Vols didn’t have a player over 6-8 play significant minutes until the very end of the season when 6-10 Tariq Owens got more playing time. But even those “bigs” weren’t able to bang down low with the rest of the SEC’s post players, because only Derek Reese weighed more than 220 lbs, and even that is skinny for a forward.

That left players like 6-5 Armani Moore and 6-6 Robert Hubbs having to play the forward spot, a spot where the rest of the SEC had 6-8 or 6-9 players with dozens of more pounds of muscle throwing their weight around near the basket.

For most of the season, guard Kevin Punter was the only player truly playing his natural position as the shooting guard. Reese was typically the “center” and players like Willie Carmichael and Owens had to play at forward despite giving up 30-50 lbs to their counterparts.

But it doesn’t end there.

Tennessee’s schedule started out rather favorably, and early in the season the Vols had fresh legs and still had a handful of players that hadn’t been lost to injury yet. The Vols entered SEC play with an 8-4 record and riding the momentum of a 4-game winning streak. Tennessee then jumped out to a 4-1 conference record, much to the surprise of nearly every fan, media member, and analyst around the nation.

But that’s where the wheels fell off.

After that 4-1 start, the Vols would only win 3 more SEC games, going 3-10 down the stretch. But a glimpse at the schedule will reveal why this shouldn’t come as a shock.

Tennessee was 5-4 in conference play through the first half of their SEC schedule. The combined record of those 7 opponents (the Vols played Mississippi State and Arkansas twice in that span) at the end of the regular season was 111-1o4.

The Vols went 2-7 in the last half of their SEC schedule, and the combined record of those 7 opponents (the Vols played Vanderbilt and LSU twice in that span) was 142-73. The Vols faced 3 teams with losing records in the first half of their schedule; they only faced one such team in the last half.

A back-ended schedule would be tough for any team to overcome. But a team with depleted depth, a rebuilt roster, and a lack of identity stood very little chance of finding success in that stretch.

Fans raised their expectations after Tennessee’s surprising start to the season that had them in way-too-early NCAA Tournament bubble talk after a 12-5 beginning. But what fans (and a great deal of media alike, to be fair) failed to see was just how deficient this team was in a multitude of areas.

Those deficiencies had to catch up eventually, and they did.

That’s not an indictment on Donnie Tyndall. As far as coaching goes, Tyndall has what it takes to be a quality coach in a quality conference. But he was dealt one of the worst hands a head coach could be given when taking over a program, and the schedule and rising quality of the SEC overall didn’t help matters.

Throw in the looming dark cloud of the NCAA investigating Tyndall’s past at Southern Mississippi, and it’s not hard to see why the Vols finished 15-15 on the season.

In fact, one can begin to question how they didn’t finish worse.