Taking a closer look at Tennessee’s non-conference schedule

Tennessee’s non-conference basketball schedule, released on Wednesday, provides another clear illustration of how new coach Donnie Tyndall and his staff are going to operate. Make that illustrations:

• Tyndall, director of basketball operations Justin Phelps and associate athletic director Jon Gilbert, who oversees men’s basketball, aren’t going to play around with the schedule. They work quickly, much like the staff did in corralling an eight-man recruiting class in about a month.

Having a schedule completed in June is increasingly rare; some power conference schools don’t wrap up their schedules until September. Tennessee’s schedule was essentially done weeks ago but couldn’t be released until the requisite paperwork wound its way through the system.

• Clearly, Tyndall, having coached at a mid-major (Morehead State) located in a state with big state schools and national powers (Kentucky, Louisville) is sympathetic to the plight of in-state mid-major coaches and will give them an opportunity to take on the Vols, albeit in Knoxville. East Tennessee State, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech are all on the schedule.

• The Vols will back down from no one. Tyndall inherited a season-opening neutral site game against VCU, the Orlando Classic, the Big 12/SEC Challenge match-up against Kansas State and a series with Butler that Gilbert astutely arranged, but those are the kinds of games Tyndall and Phelps will typically seek out. And to those they added several so-called “trap” games against decent mid-majors eager to make their season by springing an upset of a Southeastern Conference team.

Here’s a look at the Vols’ non-conference schedule, including the entire Orlando field. In two other installments, the SEC portion of the schedule will be broken down. Full profiles, from 1,000 words to 5,000 words, of all Tennessee’s opponents will be featured in the 2014-15 edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, which ships in October.

Nov. 14—vs. VCU at Annapolis, Md.

This game is part of the Veterans Classic, a doubleheader that will give the Vols a sneak peak at Michigan State, which they could end up playing in Orlando. The Spartans will play Navy the same night.

As usual, the Rams of coach Shaka Smart will be a handful, given their “Havoc” style of full-court pressure. This game will feature a lot of steals and turnovers, because the Vols, under Tyndall, are also going to press, off every made basket and free throw.

VCU returns three starters, including leading scorer Treveon Graham (17.5 ppg) and master thief Briante Weber, a senior who has led the NCAA in steals percentage every season of his career and led the country in steals (98 in 2012-13, 121 in 2013-14) the last two years.

VCU also brings in a freshman class that was rated No. 15 in the country by one recruiting analyst. The class includes Terry Larrier, a 6-foot-7 freshman rated No. 43 in his class by ESPN. “He’s a classic ‘run and jump’ athlete, so it’s no surprise when he explodes to the rim,” ESPN wrote.

VCU also signed another top 100 player, 6-8 forward Justin Tillman, who’s lean at less than 180 pounds but is a rebounding machine.

Chattanooga coach Will Wade, who helped recruit several of the Rams when he was a VCU assistant, says Smart’s team will be dangerous as usual.

“Really good,” Wade said. “They’ll be picked to win the Atlantic 10.”

Nov. 20—vs. Texas Southern in Knoxville

Mike Davis, who took Indiana to the national championship game in 2002 and also coached at UAB, is in his third season at Texas Southern, and it’ll be hard to top what he accomplished in 2013-14, when the Tigers played in the NCAA tournament, losing to Cal Poly in the First Four.

That’s because TSU lost senior Aaric Murray (21.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.5 bpg), a well-travelled transfer with stops at La Salle and West Virginia who was the player of the year and defensive player of the year in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

The SWAC hasn’t had a repeat champion in two decades, and that trend is likely to continue. TSU does return its No. 3 (Jose Rodriguez, 11.4 ppg) and No. 4 Madarioius Gibbs (9.1) scorers. Gibbs was second in the SWAC in assists (5.2 apg) last season.

Nov. 27-28, 30—Orlando Classic, Orlando, Fla.

The former Old Spice Classic features an eight-team field. The Vols, then coach by Bruce Pearl, played in this tournament in 2008, beating Siena in the first round and Georgetown in the second before losing to Gonzaga in the title game.

Potential opponents include:

Georgia Tech—The Yellow Jackets suffered a setback when power forward Robert Carter decided to transfer to Maryland, but coach Brian Gregory has some bodies, including two returning starters in junior forward Marcus Georges-Hunt (11.7 ppg) and sophomore guard Corey Heyward, who started the last half of 2013-14 at the point.

Newcomers include East Carolina transfer Robert Sampson (9.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg in 2012-13); freshmen Ben Lammers (6-10, San Antonio, Texas); Tadric Jackson, the class 6A player of the year in Georgia; and Abdoulaye Gueye (6-10, Birmingham, Ala.); and 6-8, 276-pound Demarco Cox, a fifth-year senior from Ole Miss who will be immediately eligible. Tech coaches know what Cox is capable of—he dropped a career-high 15 points and 14 boards on the Yellow Jackets in a game last season.

Georgia Tech will also gain the services of USF transfer Josh Heath, whose father, Stan, was the head coach there before getting fired in March. The younger Heath averaged 2.6 points and 3.6 assists last season. There is precedent to suggest he could be eligible immediately. When Central Michigan fired Ernie Ziegler in 2012, his son Trey transferred to Pitt and was immediately eligible.

The Yellow Jackets may have lost Carter to Maryland, but they got back in trade Maryland’s Charles Mitchell, an Atlanta native who transferred to Tech to be closer to his ailing grandmother, who raised him. If the NCAA holds to form, Mitchell may be able to request a waiver and become immediately eligible. The 6-8 forward averaged 6.5 points and 6.3 rebounds last season.

Yet another transfer, 6-8 forward Nick Jacobs (Alabama), will have to sit out 2014-15.

Kansas—Here’s alittle stat that boggles the mind and tells all about the job Bill Self has done at Kansas. In Self’s tenure, which began in 2003, the Jayhawks have won more Big 12 championships (10 straight) than they’ve suffered homecourt defeats (175-9). Told you that was crazy.

No less an expert than ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who works the network’s Big 12 telecasts, is picking Kansas to make it 11 Big 12 titles in a row in 2014-15, and that’s after losing two players who might have gone 1-2 in the NBA Draft had Joel Embiid not suffered a stress fracture in his foot.

There’s still plenty of talent in Lawrence, including junior forward Perry Ellis (13.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg), and sophomore guards Frank Mason (5.5 ppg, 2.0 apg) and Wayne Selden, Jr. (9.7 ppg, 2.5 apg) To that solid nucleus Self adds heralded freshmen Cliff Alexander, a power forward rated the No. 3 player in the country by ESPN and No. 4 by Rivals; small forward Kelly Oubre, rated No. 10 by ESPN and No. 12 by Rivals; and 6-10, 245-pound Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson.

In May, KU also shored up its backcourt with 6-2 freshman Devonte Graham, who originally signed with Appalachian State in 2012 before significantly boosting his stock playing at Brewster (N.H.) Prep in 2013-14; and 6-8 small forward Svi Mykhailiuk, a versatile native of the Ukraine.

“I think Devonte’ will be an immediate impact guy for us,” Self said. “That’s not to take away from the other guards we have, but this is a situation that we just got a lot better.”

Of Mykhailiuk Self said, “He’s a young man who will be so exciting to watch his growth because of his age, his intellect and his ‘want to.’ This guy really wants to be a player and really wants to do it here in the States.”

Marquette—Former Marquette coach Buzz Williams surprised a lot of people when he left for Virginia Tech, but he was reportedly unhappy with his administration. Word was that Williams coveted the Tennessee job, but when he didn’t think there was a possibility it would come open, he jumped for Tech, which some considered a less than lateral move.

Marquette is left to regroup with another in a growing list of former Duke assistants who have become head coaches, Steve Wojciechowski. The 37-year-old Woj played for Mike Krzyzewski and was on coach K’s staff since 1999, so he should be ready to run his own program.

Not surprisingly, the recruits that committed to Marquette or signed with Williams last November bolted, including Malek Harris (Kansas State), Ahmed Hill and 7-footer Satchel Pierce (Virginia Tech) and Canadian Marial Shayok (Virginia).

But with nine returning players, Wojciechowski and his staff didn’t have to scramble around and rebuild an entire team the way Tyndall and his assistants did at Tennessee.

Marquette did make one key pickup, though—fifth-year senior Matt Carlino, a BYU transfer who averaged 13.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals in leading the Cougars to the NCAA tournament, where they played a second-round game in BMO Harris Bradley Center, Marquette’s home court.

Carlino adds to a guard heavy roster that could have used Pierce but does gain the services of Indiana transfer Luke Fisher, a 6-11, 230-pound redshirt freshman who becomes eligible on Dec. 14, 2014. He was rated by ESPN as the No. 34 player and the No. 4 center in the class of 2012.

Gabe Levin, a 6-7 sophomore who averaged 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds last season at Loyola Marymount, will sit out this season after transferring.

Michigan State—As usual, the Spartans of Tom Izzo will be an NCAA tournament team in 2014-15; they haven’t missed the Big Dance since 1997, a string of 17 consecutive appearances that includes the 2000 national championship, five other trips to the Final Four and two Elite Eights.

Few teams in the country suffered heavier personnel losses than the Spartans, including certain first-round NBA Draft picks Gary Harris and Adreian Payne and starting point guard Keith Appling. But MSU could exceed expectations if 6-6 senior Branden Dawson is ready to become a star and go-to guy, 6-5 junior Denzel Valentine assumes a leadership role, and 6-9, 240-pound Matt Costello evolves into a low-post threat.

Dawson (11.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg), who missed nine games with a broken hand last year, has an intriguing package of skills and is vital to the cause. Last season the Spartans were 24-4 when he played and 20-4 when he started.

Valentine (8.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.8 apg) was third in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1-1) and was also the only player in the league to rank in the top 12 in assists and rebounding.

Costello, with his 7-2 wingspan, can be a defensive presence (he finished 10th in the Big 10 in blocked shots last season), but he’ll need to shoulder some of the offensive load.

The Spartans didn’t rake in a top recruiting class, but ESPN analyst Paul Biancardi calls 6-5 shooting guard Jevon Bess the most impactful player in the country who was rated outside the top 100.

“Bess plays on the wing and possesses point-forward abilities, as he is long, athletic and constantly making plays with his high motor,” Biancardi wrote. “Bess can be productive not only in statistical areas but also in other facets of the game that don’t show up in the box score. He’s a great teammate, he brings energy to the game, gives energy to his teammates and handles the ball against pressure in the full court.”

Sounds like a typical Tom Izzo player.

Two transfers, Eron Harris (17.2 ppg, .422 3PT at West Virginia in 2013-14) and Bryn Forbes (14.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, .406 3PT at Cleveland State), will sit out this season.

Rhode Island—Third-year coach Dan Hurley’s rebuilding efforts should pay dividends this season behind a young lineup that includes Atlantic 10 Co-Rookie of the Year E.C. Mathews (15.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg), a former four-star, top 100 player.

Joining Mathews is another 2013-14 A-10 All-Rookie team member, Hassan Martin (6.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), and 6-8 senior Gilvydas Biruta 10.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg).

A talented recruiting classed is led by 6-2 shooting guard Jared Terrell a 6-3, 220-pound four-star recruit rated by ESPN as the No. 79 player and the No. 16 shooting guard in the class of 2014.

Rider—Guard play is the strength of this team, which finished 14-17 overall and 9-11 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference a year ago. Sophomore Jimmie Taylor III (12.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg 2.3 apg) started all season and made the MAAC All-Rookie team after leading the league in 3-point percentage (.469).

This season, the 6-3 Taylor, who had to play some point in 2013-14, could move over to the two spot because of the addition of VCU transfer Teddy Okereafor, one of three Division I transfers who will play for the Broncs this season.

Junior guard Zedric Sadler played through knee pain last season but still led the team in assists.

Santa Clara—Coached by former Tennessee and UCLA assistant Kerry Keating, the Broncos finished 14-19 a year ago while competing in the rugged West Coast Conference, which features Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU, among others.

Keating loses two of his two three scorers from last season but returns sophomore Jared Brownridge, who set seven school freshman season records and three game records while leading the team in scoring (17.2 ppg) and being voted the WCC Newcomer of the Year. The 6-2 Brownridge shot .436 from 3 and .862 from from the free-throw line. He scored a school freshman record 38 points at Pepperdine and was just the seventh player in program history to rack up three games of 30 points or more in a season.

Dec. 6 vs. Kansas State in Knoxville

This game is part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which involves 10 teams from each league. The event started a year ago, but Tennessee didn’t take part.

Ironically, Kansas State and Tennessee have never played, though the Wildcats have played 303 games against Southeastern Conference opponents in their history.

Bruce Weber, who landed in the perfect spot after his ouster from Illinois in 2012, returns nine key players, five with starting experience, from a team that finished 20-13 overall, 10-8 in the Big 12, and played in the NCAA tournament, where it lost to Kentucky in the second round.

Key players are All-Big 12 second-team pick Marcus Foster (15.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg), a sophomore guard, and 6-7, 265-pound senior Thomas Gipson (11.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg). The Wildcats also gain the services of Division I transfers Justin Edwards and Brandon Bolden. Edwards, a 6-4 junior, averaged 16.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 steals for Maine in 2012-13. Golden, a 6-11 sophomore, playing sparingly for Georgetown in 2012-13 but was rated by Rivals as the No. 14 center and the No. 81 player in the class of 2012.

The Wildcats also added four-star forward Malek Harris, who originally signed with Marquette but switched to K-State in May after Williams left for Virginia Tech; Stephen Hurt, a 6-10 junior college transfer who began his career at Lipscomb; and Tre Harris, a freshman long-distance shooter who played last season at a prep school.

Last season in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, K-State beat Ole Miss, 61-58, in a game played in Manhattan, Kan.

“The Challenge series is a win-win situation for both conferences,” Weber said. “It provides our teams with a high-quality, non-conference opponent, which can be difficult at times to secure. Our win over Ole Miss not only helped in the development of our team, but also represented a terrific home game for our fans.”

Dec. 14 vs. Butler in Knoxville

The Vols and Bulldogs have played just three times in their history, at three different locations, and Knoxville isn’t one of them. So this game will be a first.

Tennessee played at Butler’s historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in 1958 and was roughed up, 81-66. Maybe that’s why it was 48 years before the teams played again. The Bulldogs won that game, too, 56-44, in the 2006 NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden.

The Vols finally got the better of Butler in the 2008 NCAA tournament in Birmingham, winning 76-71 in overtime.

The Bulldogs are coming off an atypical season, finishing 14-17 in coach Brandon Miller’s first year. Since 1996-97, Butler has won 20 or more games 15 times and played in 11 NCAA tournaments.

The Bulldogs’ debut in the reconstituted Big East wasn’t too fun; they finished 4-14, ninth in the 10-team league.

Butler returns every key contributor but second-leading scorer Kyle Marshall and Elijah Brown, who transferred to New Mexico. The list of returnees includes leading scorer Kellen Dunham (16.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg), and junior forward Roosevelt Jones, who missed all of last season after suffering a wrist injury during the Bulldogs’ summer tour of Australia.

The first player ever to transfer from Indiana to Butler, 6-6 Austin Etherington, graduated in May and is eligible immediately. He’ll have two years remaining. Long-range shooting is his forte.

Butler also signed four-star power forward Kelan Martin of famed Louisville Ballard High School.

Dec. 17 at NC State

The Vols were embarrassed by the Wolfpack in Knoxville last season and will play the second game of the home-and-home series in Raleigh.

NC State loses first-round NBA Draft pick T.J. Warren but has a trio of frontcourt players to try and pick up the slack left by the ACC’s leading scorer—BeeJay Anya (6-9, 325) and sophomores Leonard Freeman (6-8, 245) and Kyle Washington (6-9, 225).

The Wolfpack will also depend on sophomore point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber, who started 18 games last year and fashioned a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while finishing second on the team in assists. Tyler Lewis, who led NC State in assists and also earned 18 starts at the point, transferred to Butler, where he will sit out the 2014-15 season.

A newcomer Tennessee fans will be familiar with is Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey a 6-3 junior. In 2012-13, Lacey averaged 11.3 points and led the Tide with 62 3s and 115 assists and was second with 51 steals.

Dec. 19 vs. Tennessee Tech in Knoxville

The Golden Eagles finished 17-16 a year ago and return 6-8 senior Dwan Caldwell, their leading scorer (10.7 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (5.5 rpg). Josiah Moore (7.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg), a 6-5 junior transfer from Nebraska, is also back, along with 6-5 swingman Javon McKay (5.4 ppg).

A group of newcomers will be led by Charles Jackson, a 6-10, 240-pound center from the College of Southern Idaho, and Torrance Rowe, a guard from Eastern Florida State College.

Dec. 22 vs. Mercer in Knoxville

Tennessee and Duke fans know all about these guys. The Bears went to Thompson-Boling Arena and bounced a clearly disinterested Tennessee team out of the NIT in coach Cuonzo Martin’s second season, and then last March, they pulled the shocker of the NCAA tournament by upsetting Duke in the second round.

But the Vols are catching Mercer, coached by one of the game’s best tacticians, Bob Hoffman, at a good time. They lose a ton of firepower from last season—six seniors who averaged more than 50 points a game between them.

Mercer’s leading returning scorer is 6-5 sophomore Ike Nwamu (8.3 ppg).

The Bears have switched conferences, moving from the Atlantic Sun (along with East Tennessee State) to the Southern Conference, which was reeling from the rapid-in-succession losses of Appalachian State (Sun Belt), College of Charleston (Colonial), Davidson (Atlantic 10), Georgia Southern (Sun Belt) and Elon (Colonial).

Dec. 27 vs. Tennessee State in Knoxville

Tennessee State has undergone a staff and roster upheaval, much the same way Tennessee did after Martin bolted for California. Only former Tennessee State coach Travis Williams didn’t leave of his own accord. He got canned after just two seasons and a 23-40 record, 5-25 in 2013-14.

New coach Dana Ford, a former Illinois State assistant, has brought in 10 newcomers.

Gone are last year’s leading scorer Patrick Miller (23.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.1 apg), a dynamic combo guard, and forward M.J. Rhett, who graduated and opted to play his final season at Ole Miss.

Two junior college transfers figure to play a lot—6-2 guard Xavier Richards from Baltimore City Community College and 6-6 Christian Crockett from Odessa (Texas) College.

Keron Deshields, who played three seasons at Montana, is eligible immediately after transferring. He averaged 11.8 points last season.

Dec. 31 vs. East Tennessee State in Knoxville

After dropping football, getting booted from the Southern Conference and competing in the Atlantic Sun for the last eight seasons, the Buccaneers are back where they belong, the SoCon, where they will be picked among the league leaders on the strength of their good senior guard tandem of Rashawn Rembert (16.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.2 spg, .424 3PT, .842 FT) and Jalen Riley (13.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, .837 FT).

“We’ll go as far as our guards take us,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “Rashawn came here as a great catch-and-shoot guy, and now his game has evolved in a variety of ways. Jalen has got a great belief in his ability to score. He’s more of a score-off-the-dribble guy, and he wants the ball in his hands a lot. We ball screen a lot and try to do a lot of different things for him, but he’s got a little playground in him in terms of creating space and getting room.”

Adding more intrigue to this game—Bartow and Tyndall are old friends. Bartow was instrumental in helping Tyndall get his first head-coaching job, at Morehead State.

“You always have mixed feelings when you play friends,” Bartow said. “But now that Donnie’s at Tennessee, it’s a no-brainer to play. Donnie and I have discussed the value to my program if we could ever figure out a way to get Tennessee to play in Johnson City. I’ll just kind of keep hammering him on that.”

Next: Taking a look at Tennessee’s SEC schedule.