Vols take acceptable risk by adding former Memphis big man

As long as he’s been a head coach, Tennessee’s Donnie Tyndall has maintained a policy of keeping a scholarship in reserve, just in case a good player might become available late in the summer, or as a mid-year transfer.

The policy paid off at Southern Miss, Tyndall’s last job, when he and his staff signed forward Michael Craig in August, a couple of days after school started. He turned out to be the Golden Eagles’ best player, was a part of 56 wins in two years, and last season was third-team All-Conference USA and participated in the slam-dunk contest at the Final Four.

Tyndall’s know-when-to-hold-’em policy might have paid off for him again on Tuesday, when 6-11, 295-pound sophomore Dominic Woodson announced he was transferring to Tennessee from Memphis, where he struggled through a suspension-plagued freshman season n 2013-14 and his scholarship was not renewed on June 30. That allowed him to essentially become a free-agent, able to sign with whatever program wanted to take a chance on a player who had worn out his welcome at his old school and become immediately eligible.

Of course, there were plenty of takers for a gifted big man who, belying his massive size, is quick of foot, armed with a variety of scoring moves, including a reliable jump hook, and has the intelligence to create and utilize angles to score. Better still, he’s a good passer, and not just for a post player. Woodson is able to put the ball on the floor and spot cutters or stand at the high post, which he’ll do in Tyndall’s high-low offense, and pick apart defenses by being able to see over them and rifle passes to open teammates.

Just a few weeks ago, Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who suspended Woodson after a game against UCF last season and then left him at home when the Tigers traveled to their second-round NCAA tournament game last March, was effusive in his praise of Woodson.

“Dom Woodson can be a monster,” Pastner told the media in June. “You can ask those guys. He can be better than Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin and can be one of the best big men in college basketball. He’s that good, but the things that will hold him back are if he is not in shape and if he doesn’t filter his mouth.”

Apparently Woodson needed to filter his fists, too. In June, Woodson used his third strike at Memphis by getting into a fight with a football player, which reportedly wasn’t initiated by Woodson.

So why is Tyndall taking a chance on Woodson? There’s no denying that, as Pastner said, when the emotional, vocal Woodson concentrates on doing his thing, he is indeed one of the best post players in the country.

Tyndall and his assistants didn’t blindly stumble into this. They did their homework. What they learned was that Woodson never really knew his father, who split from his mother and is now deceased. They found out Woodson’s mother fell victim to substance abuse and that he was forced to live, along with six siblings, with an aunt who ruled with a stern hand.

Woodson, from Texas, had a well-intentioned mentor in his life, and by sending him to prep schools in Vermont and Huntington, W.Va., it was hoped he could mature. Apparently, that was not the case. Woodson burns with an inner anger that, given his family history, isn’t so difficult to understand. And to his credit, he told the Tennessee coaching staff he needed the notoriously hard-nosed Tyndall, who cuts no slack and always tells the truth, whether it’s what a player wants to hear, to bring some order and discipline into his life.

If Tyndall can succeed—and Tennessee’s practices and conditioning drills will be like boot camp, with Tyndall serving as the loud drill sergeant getting nose to nose with his players—Woodson is a potential difference maker.

After the Southeastern Conference denied entry to fifth-year senior Eric McKnight, a transfer from FGCU who had been suspended at his old school, in mid July, the Vols were lacking a post player with bulk and experience. Tyndall faced the prospect of playing in the SEC, where Kentucky, for example, has seven players 6-9 or taller and six 220 pounds or heavier, with three freshmen who didn’t even weigh 200 pounds before they got to Knoxville.

A critic might say that Tyndall is leaving himself wide open for trouble by taking Woodson. But sometimes a well-traveled player with a checkered past is the best kind of player to have, because he’s down to his last option. Woodson, even by Pastner’s admission, seems to want to get his life together. And now that he’s at Tennessee, there’s no place else to go, not in college basketball, anyway. He needs the Vols and Tyndall’s brand of discipline. The Vols need Woodson, too, but they were going to manage without him before, and can do so again if he doesn’t blend with his new teammates, or resists authority.

Woodson was already headed in a positive direction before the slugfest with the football player.

“Dom Woodson is in tremendous shape,” Pastner said in June. “And the second thing is he has kept his mouth shut. I say that seriously. … He has kept his mouth shut. He has let us coach him. He has been in shape and as long as he feeds the positive dog, he’s great.”

The reason Woodson was suspended after the UCF game was because he was swearing on the bench. Pastner, who doesn’t utter so much as a gosh darn, took offense to that. Suffice it to say cursing is not an issue with Tyndall. And he also allows his players to bark back at him—provided they deliver on the court and in the classroom.

Did Tyndall take a chance? Of course he did. But did Woodson end up at about the best place he could have, with a strong disciplinarian for a coach, similarly tough-minded assistants, a strength coach, Todd Moyer, who is already doing great work sculpting bodies and conditioning, and a team that needs Woodson’s size and skill set?

Yes, he did.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be a shouting match, or two, or three in the days, weeks and months ahead. But remember, Woodson, who could have gone a lot of places, including the Vols’ SEC rival Missouri, where his former coach at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, Rob Fulford, is on the staff. But he wanted Tennessee, and he wanted Tyndall.

Woodson deserves some credit for realizing he had to get his life together.

As for Tyndall, his long-standing practice of keeping a scholarship in his back pocket may have paid off again. If Woodson contributes as much to the Vols as Mike Craig did for Southern Miss, both player and program will benefit.

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