Under new coach Donnie Tyndall, Tennessee is going to start playing a lot more like Kentucky and Louisville and less like Vol teams of recent vintage coached by Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin.
That should be welcome news for Tennessee fans, given that the Wildcats and Cardinals have won two of the last three NCAA tournament championships. Advanced statistics tell the tale.
Lest anyone think Tyndall’s pressing system is run and gun, the numbers compiled by statistics guru Ken Pomeroy suggest differently. In nine seasons as a head coach at Morehead State and Southern Miss, Tyndall’s teams have averaged a No. 256 ranking among Division I teams in adjusted tempo—possessions per 40 minutes.
That’s well less than the average of Pearl’s teams, which in his first three seasons averaged a No. 19 ranking. By contrast, in Martin’s three seasons, the Vols averaged 264th in adjusted tempo.
This isn’t to suggest Tyndall prefers a slow-down offense. What he prefers is an active offense, and as he mentioned in his introductory press conference last week, the Vols are going to run a high-low with motion and ball screens and work to get separation and good shots. They’ll spread out the floor and look for dribble-drive opportunities. And when all else fails, they’ll pound the offensive glass.
Tyndall’s nine previous teams averaged No. 47 in the country in offensive rebound percentage. Morehead State, where Tyndall coached rebounding machine Kenneth Faried, was particularly effective on the offensive glass, with rankings of No. 3, 9 and 14 in Tyndall’s last three seasons.
“They’ll absolutely obliterate people on the offensive glass,” said one Division I coach who knows Tyndall well but preferred not to be identified. “They’re gonna be tough as shit. I know Tennessee fans don’t want to hear that after coach Martin and the whole ‘Tougher Breed’ thing, but they’ll be much tougher than Martin’s teams. You’ll see.”
Tyndall’s offensive mix has also included turnovers—his nine teams were a combined No. 291 in the country in turnover percentage, or turnovers divided by possessions. But many of those miscues came as a result of aggression. Coaches and fans can live with errors of aggression. Harder to stomach are errors of passivity.
Pearl’s teams started out playing aggressively by pressing the in-bounds pass off all made baskets and free throws. But by his sixth season, the press had all but disappeared.
Martin’s three teams played aggressively at times; their run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament was a good example of that. But slow starts to each of Martin’s three seasons were often characterized by head-scratching losses to teams that didn’t have nearly as much talent. The Vols, it appeared, let inferior teams take the fight to them.
That isn’t likely happen in the Tyndall era.
“Good coaches get teams to play hard,” said Kyle Turnham, a former junior college coach and now Middle Tennessee State’s radio color analyst who got to know Tyndall when he was an assistant there. “Donnie gets teams to play hard at a completely different level. They play defense like crazy and go to the offensive boards with reckless abandon.
“Those cats [the Vols] haven’t seen hard. They have no idea how hard he’s gonna make them work.”
Pomeroy weighed in on his own statistics that compared Pearl’s six seasons at Tennessee, Martin’s three seasons and Tyndall’s nine seasons at Morehead and Southern Miss.
“His offensive profile is similar to Kentucky last season,” Pomeroy said. “USM didn’t shoot well, but made up for that by getting second chances and getting to the free-throw line.”
That’s another thing Tennessee fans can expect. The Vols will get to the line a lot. It’s a smart approach, piling up points when the game clock is turned off.
On the flipside of that, Tyndall’s teams have also surrendered a ton of free throws, averaging No. 266 in the country in free-throw rate, much more than Martin’s three Tennessee teams (No. 107) or Pearl’s six (190 the first three years, 195 the last three). But there is a method to this madness—the Vols will attack full court with a 2-2-1 press and then drop back into an aggressive match-up zone. Fouls are going to happen when defenses pressure the basketball, especially after the NCAA began enforcing it own rulebook and sought to eliminate hand checks, arm bars and shoving.
As Tyndall said in his first press conference, that’s going to remind fans of Louisville.
“His defense is really unique, in that it’s a zone that forces a lot of turnovers,” Pomeroy said. “Opponents don’t get into the lane that often, but when they do, the result is usually a foul or a turnover. This is a bit of a contrast to Cuonzo in particular, who liked to take the three-pointer and forced a lot of mid-range twos without forcing steals.”
Tyndall worked for MTSU coach Kermit Davis as an assistant, and the two have been friends for years, also serving on John Brady’s staff at LSU. They squared off against one another in Middle’s first season in Conference USA (the Blue Raiders won at home). Davis is qualified to discuss Tyndall’s system, and as an appreciator of defense, he singles out the zone.
“They play it for 40 minutes,” Davis said. “It’s an unconventional zone. And they press. I’m sure as athletic as they’ll be at Tennessee, that’ll be a great factor.”
Advanced statistics support what Davis is talking about. Tyndall’s nine teams averaged a No. 63 ranking in turnover rate, including No. 9, 16, 12, 43 and 18 in his first five years at Morehead.
Though Tyndall is committed to his system, he’ll no doubt make some tweaks.
“He’s really smart,” said another Division I head coach who didn’t want to be identified. “His first couple years at Morehead, he played man. When he got Faried, people started driving the ball at him, getting him in foul trouble. Donnie had to keep him on the court, and that’s when he put in the zone. He actually hired a guy from Rick Pitino’s [Louisville] staff to do it. But now that zone is pretty much his. It’s evolved into his zone.”
Some tweaks will be necessitated by the fact Tyndall will at last be able to compete for the best players in the country.
“That’s gonna be his biggest deal,” said the D-I head coach. “Donnie’s never had one of the top jobs in whatever league he’s been in. And you could argue that Tennessee’s among the top three or four jobs in the SEC.
“When he was at Southern Miss and Morehead, he took last-chance guys, He took whatever he could get. They very rarely beat people in recruiting. He just took them and made them good. Now he’s gonna be able to sign a higher caliber of player.”