Distractions aside, fans seem to be warming to overachieving Vols

Passing through the crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena on my way to the media workroom after Tennessee’s come-from-behind victory over then-No. 15 Butler on Sunday, I’m sure I heard this comment at least 20 times:

“The guy can really coach.”

In the media room, the refrain was the same among the gathered scribes and broadcasters.

The man in question was Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall. And yes, the guy can really coach. That’s why he was hired. But it took the win over Butler, a game in which the Vols (4-3) were an Alex Barlow missed 3-pointer away from getting blown out before they mounted their second-half comeback to win by double figures, to hammer home the point. That victory over the Bulldogs followed closely on the heels of a win over a good Kansas State team.

These two victories could pay dividends down the road, if the Vols continue this trend of upward mobility. They aren’t all that talented—you could make a case that their deficiencies outweigh their strengths—but the last two games have shown that Tyndall’s system works.

Tennessee fans can’t be blamed if they didn’t realize that before the Butler game. For one thing, he Vols’ unusual schedule had them play just six games in the season’s first month, when other teams had played 10 or more. There hadn’t been opportunity—home games against quality opponents—for the Vols to show how far they’ve come.

Without a doubt, the NCAA investigation into alleged rules violations when Tyndall was at Southern Miss has caused Vol fans to cast a wary eye on him and his team. Should they embrace him only to lose him after one overachieving season? Should they take a wait-and-see approach? A trusted and valued assistant, Adam Howard, who had followed Tyndall from Southern Miss to Tennessee, has already been dismissed.

Clearly someone thinks something happened down there, and the skullduggery that tipped off the NCAA was cutthroat, involving broken relationships and recruiting battles.

Perhaps all that will come to light one of these days. But the NCAA still has to serve up a formal letter of allegations, and Tennessee’s administration has 90 days to figure out how it wants to proceed.

In the meantime, I got the sense walking through that crowd on Sunday that Tennessee fans, so hungry for a return to the salad days of Bruce Pearl, have taken a cautious step forward into Tyndall’s camp.

Perhaps these fans have put aside Tyndall’s alleged brush with the NCAA rulebook and are just enjoying the game of basketball, having a little fun watching the man salvage a season that pundits predicted would be a disaster. One major publication picked the Vols to finish last in the Southeastern Conference. A poll of the league’s media saw them finishing 13th.

My response to that was that no team with depth and that plays hard will ever finish last in its conference. If the Kansas State and Butler games are any indication—and I think they are—the SEC cellar will not be occupied by Tennessee, which has depth, and plays hard.

Tyndall’s system, when his Island of Misfit Toys band of players runs it the way it’s supposed to be run, is a tough nut to crack. Kansas State thought it figured out Tyndall’s press, and Butler, having watched that game tape, thought it had, too. But Tyndall watched the K-State game tape, and immediately knew how to chase Butler ball-handlers away from the middle of the court and toward the sidelines, where the Vols, looking like a school of sharks on a feeding frenzy, plundered and pilfered and brought themselves back from a double-digit deficit.

Tyndall calls it taking an opponent’s legs. Wearing them down. He’s convinced his players that the second halves of games belongs to them, a double-digit deficit be damned.

I don’t pretend to know what’s in Tyndall’s past as it relates to the NCAA issues. What I do know is that he’s taken a team with three frail, unskilled post players, no true point guard, and a dearth of scoring punch, and just beaten two teams that are going to play in the NCAA Tournament in March.

I loved what he said in his post-game press conference about playing Josh Richardson, a two/three man by trade, at the point. Yes, there are things that Richardson can’t do as a point guard. But then again, there are a lot of things that true points can’t do that Richardson, possessor of one of the best midrange games in college basketball, can.

Tyndall is taking advantage.

What’s really crazy about all this, in light of the abrupt departure of former coach Cuonzo Martin, the loss of key players Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes to the NBA draft, the defections of Martin’s recruits and underclassmen A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson, is how Tyndall and his staff had to scramble just to build a roster.

The Vol staff found some good pieces in the bargain bin. Junior college point guard Kevin Punter is coming into his own. All three freshmen big men, once they get some meat on their bones and a favorite scoring move or two, can be solid SEC contributors.

It’s even crazier to think that Tennessee could be even better. Big man Eric McKnight, who intended to transfer from UCF as a fifth-year senior, wasn’t allowed to by SEC rule. He’s at Long Beach State now, where his numbers aren’t great, but he’s playing 15 minutes a game. He would have given Tyndall more size and five more fouls in the post and prevented him from taking a chance on the troubled Dominic Woodson, the Memphis transfer who must have set some sort of Guinness world record by getting run off at two power conference programs in less than six months.

Another near miss was point guard Jon Octeus, a 6-4 former Colorado State player who graduated there with a 2.5 gpa and wanted to transfer to UCLA, where coach Steve Alford would have loved to plug him into his lineup. But UCLA wouldn’t admit Octeus into school. He immediately sought out Tennessee, which was two weeks into its fall semester. Tyndall and his staff almost had it worked out, but it was just too late.

Octeus is currently the starting point guard for an 8-3 Purdue team and averaging 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds, leads the team with 29 assists, has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2-1 and is shooting nearly 80 percent from the free-throw line. Those are the measuring sticks of a real point guard, a guy who could have freed up Richardson to do what he does best.

But Tyndall hasn’t bitched and moaned about what he doesn’t have. He’s moving forward with what he does have, and opponents had better be wary. This team doesn’t quit.

Who knows what the NCAA’s investigation will mean to Tyndall, his future, and the future of Tennessee basketball? But for now, fans seem to be settling into enjoying this season to watch an overachieving band of players give a demonstration of what real basketball is all about.

Yes, the guy can coach.