Anatomy of a recruiting class: How Tennessee signed half a team in a month

It was little more than a month ago when Donnie Tyndall, just hired to replace Cuonzo Martin as Tennessee’s basketball coach, convened his staff for a late-night recruiting meeting. Tyndall was reasonably certain the four-man class signed by Martin would be gone, and he knew it was possible a few current Vols might depart as well.

The Tennessee coaches, faced with the prospect of recruiting half a team, would have to get busy. And they didn’t have much time.

“That first meeting, I told our staff [Adam Howard, Chris Shumate, Al Pinkins] that we had to turn over every rock,” Tyndall said. “Call everybody you know. Let’s get as much tape in here as we can, talk to as many people as we know who’ve seen these guys.”

Opinions varied as to what players the staff should recruit, but that’s the way Tyndall likes it.

“I encourage debate among my staff,” Tyndall said. “I don’t want any yes men. We’ll have heated meetings behind closed doors. They’ll challenge me and I’ll challenge them. The common denominator is all those guys fit a mold. It takes a certain guy to love basketball, love coming to work and have a passion to teach and be with young people every day.

“And those three guys are gym rats. They were gym rats as players. Basketball junkies. We’re not going home watching soap operas or movies. We’re watching ESPN. They eat, sleep and drink it, and all of them are gonna be head coaches at some point in time.”

Tyndall had a group of assistants with whom he could go to war—connected, hard working and dedicated enough to sleep in the office if that’s what it takes, and often, that’s what it took. “There are actually some pretty comfortable coaches in there,” Howard said.

It was reasonable for the average fan to think that, in April, most of the players who could help an SEC program were long gone. That may have been true years ago. But now, with the NCAA’s fifth-year transfer rule, coaching changes, the proliferation of underclassman transfers, prep schools and junior colleges, there are always players available. You just have to know where to look.

Tennessee’s coaches knew where to look. And in a little more than a month, they wrapped up an eight-man recruiting class that not only replaced the one they lost. Several recruiting analysts have rated it higher.

Here’s how it happened.

May 2, Jabari McGhee 6-8, Hargrave Military Academy, Chatham, Va.

In years to come, McGhee might be seen as a pioneering recruit. He was the first player to sign with Tyndall. That McGhee put his trust in the Tennessee staff wasn’t too surprising—Pinkins, a Georgia native just like McGhee, had recruited him for Ole Miss and Shumate for Southern Miss, and Tyndall is friends with Hargrave coach A.W. Hamilton, a native of Kentucky, where Tyndall played and coached (Morehead State). Howard and Shumate are also from Kentucky, which didn’t hurt their relationship with Hamilton.

“If you treat those guys [prep school coaches] the right way for years, return their calls, try to help put a player in their schools, then they’re gonna try to help you back,” Tyndall said. “[McGhee] was getting close to making a decision, I think Auburn was really putting some pressure on him, so we had to get him to campus and try to get it done really quick, before he made his decision. Coach Hamilton put us right in there.”

Tennessee had the right contact to get a visit from McGee, but it also had need, given its depleted post rotation. McGee is the typical big man Tyndall seeks for his system—rangy and athletic.

“Long, live body, athletic, tough,” Howard said. “He’s one of those guys that fits the mold.”

McGhee was a breakthrough in more ways than one. He’s a native of Georgia—Pinkins’ primary recruiting area—and played for the Atlanta Express AAU team. In the last decade, Tennessee has had success recruiting Atlanta in particular and Georgia as a whole, much better than it’s had in Memphis, so establishing ties in that key border state was imperative. Tyndall and his staff made inroads into Georgia with their first recruit.

May 5—Kevin Punter 6-4, State Fair Community College Sedalia, Mo.

Tennessee can thank former Missouri coach Frank Haith for Punter. Haith, obviously getting out one step ahead of what he perceived to be a head-hunting posse, bolted a good job in the SEC for Tulsa. No knock against Tulsa, which has a good basketball tradition, but Punter, who had committed to Mizzou and had been a day or two away from signing with the Tigers, wasn’t about to follow Haith.

That left his recruitment wide open, and the Tennessee staff was already familiar with him.

“I tried to recruit him at Ole Miss,” Pinkins said. “I didn’t think I could get him because you do your research so you’re not spinning your wheels. Guys in the know said he was going to Missouri.”

During one of the Tennessee staff’s several late-night recruiting brainstorming sessions, Punter’s name was brought up.

“Adam said, ‘what do you think about Punter?’ ” Pinkins said. “I said, ‘he’s good enough, so let’s start wearing it out and see if we can get involved.’ ”

That wasn’t too hard. Howard had built a relationship with Josh Sash, an assistant at State Fair.

“We had signed a kid at Southern Miss who didn’t qualify, so we guided him to State Fair,” Howard said. “After that, Josh has always been a guy who helped me.”

Tennessee thought it had a chance at Punter, but the player was worried because of what he considered a glut of guards in front of him. But Punter’s official visit sold him, and he cancelled a visit with SMU, which will be a 2014-15 preseason Top 25 team.

“We got him over here, he saw our facilities, and he said ‘wow,’ ” Pinkins said. “I never knew about what Tennessee had until I got the job. When I was at Ole Miss, you just go to the [Thompson-Boling] arena when you’re here for a game, and you don’t see the practice facility, you don’t see the football stadium or much of the campus. We’ve got a lot to sell.”

May 8—Detrick Mostella, 6-3, Notre Dame Prep, Fitchburg, Mass.

When Tyndall, Howard and Shumate were at Southern Miss, they put in a call to Mostella’s AAU coach to see if they could get involved with the dynamic scoring guard from Decatur, Ala. The conversation was brief.

“His coach said, ‘hey look, he’s probably gonna be higher than you guys,’” Howard said. “’I don’t want you to spend a lot of time recruiting him.’”

That was the last the coaches thought they would hear of Mostella, who, just as his AAU coach said, signed with a power conference school in the fall of 2012—Oklahoma State—without even visiting the campus. Mostella was impressed with the fact OSU coach Travis Ford recruited him personally.

“Detrick might be the best scoring guard in the country,” Ford said in November 2012. “He’s extremely athletic and a has a knack for how to score, from the three-point line, pull-up jumpers and understands angles. He really fits our system.”

That fit didn’t last long, Mostella, who was attending La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind. at the time, asked out of his scholarship and committed to Pittsburgh in July 2013. The Panthers, in need of a shooting guard as they entered their first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, were planning to have Mostella in their rotation. But when Mostella didn’t qualify academically, he was on the move again, this time to Notre Dame Prep.

That’s where Kentucky coach John Calipari enters the picture.

Looking for an assistant coach to replace Orlando Antigua, who’s now the head coach at USF, Calipari hired Barry Rohrssen, the coach who recruited Mostella for Pitt. Once Rohrssen left, Mostella was on the move again.

“We started tracking him a little bit,” Howard said. “We’d recruited guys from his prep school before. We called the AAU coach again. Then coach Tyndall called Detrick. He saw an opportunity to play right away and be one of the first guards to play four years for coach at Tennessee. He wanted to be here.”

May 12—Eric McKnight, 6-9, FGCU

A week after Tyndall took the job, his staff heard that McKnight, who started his college career at Iowa State before transferring to FGCU, wanted to transfer again. This time, because he had graduated, he wouldn’t have to sit out a redshirt year.

“It moved fairly quickly,” Shumate said. “As soon as he got his release, we started communicating with him.”

Once again, Tennessee had an inside source.

“Coach Tyndall has a good relationship with [FGCU coach] Joe Dooley,” Howard said.

McKnight narrowed his choices to Wichita State and Tennessee, but the Vols won out because he’d long been a fan of the program from afar. McKnight gives Tennessee a much-needed experience transfusion in the post.

“We knew we needed a guy with experience and size,” Shumate said. “Eric’s 24 years old. He went to prep school, then played in the Big 12 for a year. He’s been around the block. He’s seen it. He’s another fifth-year guy with experience that can bring some veteran leadership.”

McKnight doesn’t just fill a roster spot on a team with a depleted frontcourt rotation. He’ll contribute immediately.

“He fits the mold,” Howard said, “for being able to come in and be a big presence at the back of our press and the middle of our zone. You’d have to think, because of his experience, he’ll get the first chance to win the job.”

May 13—Ian Chiles, 6-1, IUPUI

Relationship building and hard work are essential in recruiting, but sometimes, a little luck doesn’t hurt.

“Sometimes, you get lucky,” Shumate said. “I’ve known Ian Chiles since I played against his older brother back in high school in 1996-97. And I played with his next brother at Murray State when Ian was about nine or 10 years old. I’ve known the kid 13 or 14 years.”

Despite that familiarity, Shumate didn’t force the issue.

“I told him I wasn’t going to bother him while he was trying to finish everything he needed to graduate [from IUPUI],” Shumate said. “As soon as you walk, we’ll talk. No pressure. He walked on a Sunday, visited us on a Monday, committed on a Tuesday. It happened fast, but the last thing I wanted to do was pressure Ian just because I knew his brothers. I didn’t want to create bad blood.”

There were other factors in Tennessee’s favor. After playing mostly off the ball for three years at IUPUI, Chiles wanted to play at a higher level of Division I and show he had point guard skills. The Vols, because Darius Thompson decided to transfer to Virginia, were in need of a replacement.

Tyndall and his staff had one more connection with Chiles in their favor. His older sister India played softball for Tennessee, well enough to be chosen an All-American in 2007 after hitting .417. When Chiles and his family visited, the Lady Vols’ softball staff met with them.

“It was funny,” Shumate said. “Ian’s mom couldn’t make the trip, but she told us, ‘what do I need to come for? I can probably show you around campus.’ She’d been there before with India. The softball staff [Ralph and Karen Weekly] was very helpful. We took Ian and his family by their offices. They were incredible with the family.”

May 13—Devon Baulkman, 6-5, Gulf Coast State College, Panama City, Fla.

The signing of Baulkman can be traced back a ways—to the fall of 1999, when Shumate sat down for his first college class at Murray State. Sitting next to him was Jay Powell. The two quickly struck up a conversation, though Powell didn’t know Shumate was a basketball player, and Shumate didn’t know Powell was one of Murray’s student managers.

“We’ve been buddies for 15 years,” Shumate said. “Everybody says relationships and contacts are what recruiting is all about, and that’s definitely true in Devon Baulkman’s case.”

That’s because Powell is now the head coach at Gulf Coast State College. Shumate was Southern Miss’ lead recruiter for Baulkman and got him to sign, but there were anxious moments as the USM staff waited for SEC schools to pass judgment. One of those was Ole Miss, which came close to signing Baulkman.

“It got down to the wire between Baulkman and Stefon Moody,” Pinkins said. “We ended up taking Moody, but it wasn’t because we thought Baulkman wasn’t good enough. We just needed more of a combo guy who can play the point. I explained that to Baulkman and he was cool with it.”

Southern Miss swooped in and signed Baulkman, and he would have played there next year if Tyndall hadn’t gotten the Tennessee job. There was never a question that, once Baulkman got his release, he would follow Tyndall and his staff to Knoxville.

“I definitely think Baulkman can play at the SEC level,” Pinkins said.

“Devin is a scorer, and another veteran guy,” Shumate said. “He was in junior college for three years [counting a redshirt year], so he’s 22 years old. We’ve got some older guys who are more mature and can help us right away.”

May 13—Willie Carmichael, 6-8, Wekiva High School, Apopka, Fla.

While at Southern Miss, Shumate was also the lead recruiter on Carmichael.

“I remember when we first saw Willie,” Shumate said. “We were actually watching another kid play [in the summer of 2013]. He was playing against a 6-9, 260-pound monster, and that kid couldn’t do anything with Willie, a 6-7 skinny kid. Coach said, ‘we’re recruiting the wrong kid. I want that one. Go get No. 24.’

“The more we watched him, the more we realized he was a junkyard dog who would do whatever it takes to win. He doesn’t care if he scores two points or 30. He had a great high school coach who emphasized defense and winning plays.”

Carmichael ended up having a strong senior season at Wekiva and, had he waited to sign late, he probably would have pursued by more SEC teams. After he de-committed from Southern Miss, Carmichael heard from Alabama and others, but Carmichael knew he wanted to play at Tennessee.

“He wants to be a good player and to prove to everybody that he can play in the SEC,” Howard said. “He’s a kid that can do it. He loves basketball, and he’ll live in the weight room. When he fills out, gets bigger and stronger, he may surprise some people with how quick a jump he makes.”

May 21—Tariq Owens, 6-10, St. Vincent Pallotti High School, Laurel, Md.

Once again, a coaching change played a part in Tennessee signing a quality player late. When Jim Christian left Ohio—where Owens signed last fall—for Boston College, Owens asked for his release.

Owens is particularly close with his father, Renard, a Baltimore police officer, and Tyndall quickly developed a relationship with the elder Owens.

“That’s what separated the whole thing,” Howard said. “Renard’s a tough guy. He wanted somebody that was going to be stern and develop his son with a little bit of tough love. Coach and Renard really hit it off, and they built a relationship because coach holds guys accountable. Renard wants his son to grow up, get a little tougher, and be the player he wants him to be.”

Tyndall felt confident he could sign Owens all along, but the player went through the process, sorting through suitors old and new. Temple was on his original list before he signed with Ohio and was considered the second time around, as was Seton Hall and other East Coast programs. Owens even took a late visit to UT Martin, because an assistant there, Anthony Stewart, had been his lead recruiter at Ohio. But Tyndall convinced father and son that Tennessee was the right fit.

“He’ll really help us,” Tyndall said. “He’s 6-10 and still growing. He blocks shots and rebounds it. He’s not a post scorer yet, but he’s a tip-in guy that plays hard and competes. He was a guy that we felt like we really needed.”

“Tariq’s really thin,” Howard said. “But the way we play with our zone and the press, he’ll have an opportunity to challenge some shots, block some shots, or change some shots at the back of it. He might struggle early if he were playing in a man-to-man system, at least until he can get stronger in the weight room. But he’s so long and athletic, with the way we play, we thought he would be perfect.”

The end result

After Owens signed, the Tennessee coaches could finally take a short breather. And as they looked back on their work, to a man they were satisfied after rebuilding what could have been a shattered program in a matter of weeks.

“Two things come into play for me,” Tyndall said. “First of all, the talent we were able to sign this late in the game. And second, we could stagger the classes. We got two fifth-year guys, two JUCO guys, and three high school players. That is very seldom the case.

“I’m very, very pleased. We got guys that fit our system, guys with length and athleticism and the ability to make plays off the dribble. The way it unfolded was perfect.”

“It’s been a month since coach got the job,” Howard said. “It doesn’t feel like it. We’ve had our nose to the grindstone. And when you do that, the days go by so fast. It’s exciting to be at a place like Tennessee, where the brand is so recognizable. You find yourself in the office having conversations that last longer than you think, because kids want to talk to you. Then you look up and its one or two in the morning.”