Vols’ Tyndall could play small ball to get his best players on the floor

Tennessee basketball coach Donnie Tyndall is hoping to identify a starting point guard and a backup or two during summer individual workout sessions, but he’s also looking for post players.

Just as IUPUI transfer Ian Chiles hernia surgery, which will sideline him for two to three weeks, has hampered Tyndall’s search for a point guard, so has the absence of two newcomers—6-foot-9 FGCU transfer Eric McKnight and 6-10 freshman Tariq Owens—from the first summer session. But both will be available in the second session, and Tyndall can’t wait to get a look at them.

“We’re obviously banking on McKnight and Owens,” Tyndall said. “But at the same time, we’re not opposed to getting our best players on the floor.”

That could mean 6-5 junior Armani Moore, just as former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl did with 6-4 guard Dane Bradshaw, could end up playing what Tyndall calls a “mismatch four” position. That would essentially make for a four-guard lineup.

Anyone unfamiliar with Tyndall’s system might see two potential problems with playing a smaller lineup, especially when the Vols face power conference opponents. One, can a smaller lineup defend big, mobile posts?

The answer, Tyndall says, is yes, because of the match-up zone he will utilize for 40 minutes every game. In most cases, the Vols will front the post, making it difficult for entry passes to be thrown to the opposition’s best post scorer. Tyndall first thought of the zone concept when he was the head coach at Morehead State. He started with the zone that Rick Pitino runs at Louisville and then adapted it for his own needs.

More specifically, he wanted to keep star post player Kenneth Faried, then the nation’s top rebounder and an excellent rim protector, out of foul trouble. The easiest way to do that was to double-team the man Faried was guarding and prevent him from catching post passes.

As one Division I coach who is close with Tyndall said, “Donnie took that Louisville zone and made it his own.” Proof of that came in the 2011 NCAA tournament, when Morehead State upset Louisville in the first round.

Tyndall isn’t even worried about teams like Kentucky that might have two mobile big men. His zone seeks to reduce 3-pointers and layups. The weakness in the zone is in the 15- to 17-foot range. When Tyndall’s teams at Morehead State and Southern Miss were bumped from postseason tournaments, it was usually because the other team had a stretch four that could make medium-range shots from the high post.

“But not a lot of teams have that kind of guy,” Tyndall said.

Another potential weakness from a smaller lineup, rebounding, has never been the case with Tyndall’s teams. In his first eight years as a head coach, six at Morehead and the last two at Southern Miss, Tyndall’s teams were either first or second in their respective conferences (Ohio Valley, Conference USA) in rebounding.

“I don’t want it to sound like I’ve invented the wheel,” Tyndall said. “But in coaching, you get what you emphasize. We’ve got a toughness rebounding drill—we call it 3 on 3 rebounding—that’s like football for 25 minutes a day. It gets a kid’s mentality to block out defensively, and going to rebound it offensively is huge. Guys run in practice if they don’t block out. It’s just getting what you emphasize.”

McKnight and Owens haven’t been able to prove what they can do yet, though given his previous Division I experience at Iowa State and FGCU, which made an impressive run to the Sweet 16 in the 2013 NCAA tournament, McKnight figures to plug right into the five spot. Tyndall estimates Owens could be good for 14 to 18 minutes a game, and he predicts the same number for freshman Willie Carmichael. Yet another freshman, Jabari McGhee, could claim up to 10 minutes a game just by being athletic, keeping balls alive on the offensive glass and blocking out on the defensive boards.

So far, Tyndall has been pleased with his team in individual workouts.

“They’ve been fun to coach,” Tyndall said. “They’ve been energetic. Nobody’s fought it. Guys are working hard. And Josh [Richardson] and the other returning guys are trying to give good leadership. It’s been good so far. It really has.”


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