Coming into Wednesday night’s contest against LSU, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team was not in the NCAA tournament conversation. They were not on the ‘bubble’ – nor were they likely to even be considered for the NIT [National Invitation Tournament] – more humorously referred to as the “not in tournament” or the “not invited tournament.”
Tennessee basketball, which had been prominently perched atop the NCAA in the Bruce Pearl era and in the upper echelon of the SEC under Cuonzo Martin, was fading. The Vols had lost nine of their past 11 games – including five consecutive losses, none worse than blowout defeats at the hands of Vanderbilt and Florida last week. The five-loss streak began with a drubbing from LSU in Knoxville. The Tigers’ length and size caused fits for the Vols, and Jordan Mickey was a one-man wrecking crew, manhandling the undersized Vols in the paint.
So, with zero momentum and zero wins in nearly a month of play, who would have expected Tennessee to play well in Baton Rouge? The Tigers had given Tennessee their worst loss of the season, 73-55 in their previous meeting, and the Vols NIT tournament hopes were nearly out the window. How could LSU – a likely NCAA tournament team – not beat Tennessee by 30 this time?
It all comes down to coaching. Not the X’s and O’s this time, but the inspirational feel-good part of coaching. The feel-good effect that Vol fans can rejoice in, knowing their coach is a motivator, and that he can inspire a 14-14 basketball team with five straight losses to beat a monstrous squad of Bayou Bengals capable of winning the SEC tournament. The feel-good effect that Tennessee fans had with Pearl – that is what lies ahead with Tyndall.
Tyndall is not Pearl, and drawing that conclusion from simple comparison is dangerous. Those days are long gone and hopefully, the book was closed when Vol Nation welcomed back their ex-boyfriend to Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 31. Tennessee beat Pearl’s Auburn squad that day with echoing chants of ‘Donnie Tyndall’ ringing throughout the building – while Pearl walked to the locker room with tears in his eyes.
The love affair with Pearl will never end for some people, and that is ok. Tyndall brings an energy to Tennessee basketball in the same way Pearl did. This is not a comparison of the two coaches but a parallelism. Tyndall’s teams have a different style, but they have shown they are capable of securing a bright orange future with wins over Arkansas, Butler, Kansas State and now LSU.
Since November, the narrative has remained: Tennessee is lacking in depth and talent, but they play a gritty, tough brand of basketball. That is true. For a basketball team to be remotely successful, it needs a bruising big man and a true point guard. The Vols have neither element and have not been able to make up for it with three-point shooting.
However, their intensity displayed as they claw through games – many times trailing by 10-15 points, has been a solid display of the job Tyndall has done. It can not be understated how much his team buys in to what he is trying to do. Loss after loss, they have stayed true to the plan, which is a glorious testament to what Tyndall brings to the future of Tennessee basketball. With a quality presence of size, accompanied by a few more shooters, there will be no ceiling for the Vols.
And just as persistence paid off Wednesday night in Baton Rouge, it will pay off for Tennessee fans in the near future.
Edited by Maggie Jones