Loss of McKnight means Vols’ post corps will be young

The news that Eric McKnight’s appeal to transfer from FGCU to Tennessee was denied by the Southeastern Conference didn’t come as a surprise. It had been rumored for weeks.

The big question is, will new Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall try to replace McKnight? It’s not unheard of for decent players to still be available in mid July or as late as August. In his first year at Southern Miss, Tyndall signed Mike Craig in August, and Craig turned out to be a two-year starter and third-team All-Conference USA pick. But Tyndall doesn’t plan on handing out a scholarship just to fill a uniform, and the odds of finding a decent post player who could replace McKnight’s experience are slim.

That means McKnight will have to be replaced in house. The Vols’ frontcourt options—if you don’t count Armani Moore, who at 6-5 will play a mismatch four position for Tyndall—are all freshmen who need to add size and strength. All were signed by Tyndall and his staff during their mad scramble in May to rebuild a roster gutted by the NBA Draft and the departure of former coach Cuonzo Martin.

Here’s a look at how the threesome has progressed since coming to Tennessee for summer sessions.

Jabari McGhee, 6-8, 210 pounds, FR, Albany, Ga.

McGhee spent a postgraduate year at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, so he’s already used to being away from home and working in a regimented system. Those are plusses. Another plus is that McGhee is athletic and seems to have a nose for the basketball.

“He’s athletic and he’s got a motor,” Tennessee assistant coach Adam Howard said. “You probably don’t throw him the ball in the post. But you can let him get behind the defense and run the floor in transition. We’ve been charting everything [during the Vols’ briefly weekly NCAA-allotted skills development sessions], and he leads our team in rebounds and steals, just because he’s active. He’ll play. He’ll be fighting for minutes at four spot with Armani [Moore].”

Willie Carmichael, 6-8 205 pounds, FR, Apopka, Fla.

If Martin hadn’t bolted for the California job, Carmichael, Tyndall and Howard would all be in Hattiesburg, Miss. right now. Carmichael signed with Tyndall at Southern Miss but followed his coach along to Knoxville, where he’s eager to prove he can play at the SEC level. By all accounts, like McGhee, Carmichael is a relentless rebounder, and here’s evidence of his work ethic and the skill of Tennessee’s strength and conditioning staff—in his first month in Knoxville, Carmichael added 21 pounds, from a spindly 184 to 205.

Tyndall has called Carmichael “a poor man’s Kenneth Faried,” referring to the NCAA’s all-time leading rebounder whom he coached at Morehead State. That’s high praise.

Tariq Owens, 6-9, 180 pounds, FR, Odenton, Md.

The word “long” is thrown about way too much by college basketball analysts, but it fits with Owens, who reported to Tennessee at less than 180 pounds but has a 7-3 wingspan. This is a long dude. Early reports from pick-up games with his new teammates say Owens is a fearsome presence as a rim protector. And one coach at a good mid-major program that would have loved to recruit Owens said that with an extra 20 pounds on his bones, he could help the Vols this season, even against the rugged post players he’ll encounter in the SEC.

“He’s got a long way to go with his body,” Howard said. “But he’s extremely skilled and has a good basketball IQ. Right now he just lacks physicality, and guys can bump him off his path. But we’re hoping to put some weight on him. Five pounds a month is our goal. We’ve love to have him at 200 pounds before the start of the season.”

Tyndall already envisions Owens as a defensive weapon.

“He’s not a post scorer yet, but he plays hard, and his length in the back of the press and the zone will help us,” Tyndall said. “He’ll be able to change and challenge shots.”

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