It’s not always pretty. It’s a work in progress and there are definitely still plenty of questions to be answered about this team, this coaching staff and just about everything that surrounds Tennessee basketball.
But as a very brief Christmas break arrives for the Vols, think back to what you – and many others – expected to see in Donnie Tyndall’s first season. It’s safe to say they’re overachieving. At least, according to my expectations, that’s a very safe statement.
I’m not sure what I thought Tennessee’s record would be at this point. Maybe something like 4-6. I had some visions of some kind of energized version of Buzz Ball or maybe I expected things to get as bad as the Vols losing to an atrocious Austin Peay team in Cuonzo Martin’s first season in Knoxville. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in what Tyndall could do long term if given the chance, it was just hard to say what this particular patched-together roster could do against a formidable non-conference schedule.
What the Vols have done is compete. They’ve taken care of business by finding ways to get the wins that they should, and they’ve shown fight in many of the games they shouldn’t. As a bonus, they’ve even found a way to win at least one (Butler) that very few thought the Vols had a chance in. Maybe consider it two if you were pessimistic about their chances against Kansas State like I was.
One of Tyndall’s promises when he got to Tennessee was that opponents would know they were in for a battle every time UT stepped on the floor. So far, so good on that pledge. A great coach is never satisfied, but you have to think that, amidst the NCAA turmoil that has surrounded him during his brief tenure, Tyndall has to like what he sees on the court through the first 10 games.
“I think our team has really overachieved like we’d hoped they would at this point,” Tyndall said after the Vols knocked off Mercer 64-54 on Monday night to give UT its fourth win over a 2014 NCAA tournament team. “When you look at our schedule coming into this game, I think it was the seventh or eighth toughest schedule in college basketball. We’ve played some great teams in tough environments or neutral floors.
“We had a chance to beat top-25, top-40 type programs in Kansas State and Butler, and we handled that on our home floor. Again, that’s got to be attributed to our crowd and our fans. I think we’re probably ahead of schedule a little bit. … I’m disappointed we’re not 10-0, but that’s how I’m built and that’s how I’ve always coached.”
Monday night’s win over the Bears is another example of how Vols are getting it done. Different players are stepping up. With Mercer sticking around late, Devon Baulkman – one of the junior college transfers that Tyndall brought with him to try to piece together this first roster – stepped up huge. Five of his career-high 22 points came after Mercer cut UT’s lead down to four with approximately eight minutes left to play. It was Baulkman on Monday. It’s been somebody like Kevin Punter, Armani Moore, Willie Carmichael in other situations.
All the while senior point guard Josh Richardson remains the bright sun that those other pieces revolve around. A selfless player who stuck around, has seen it all in UT hoops and has done whatever the team needs may have the best read on the job that this team has done so far. So perhaps he’s the best person to ask if the Vols are overachieving.
“It’s the popular opinion,” Richardson said. “We don’t have much coming back so people think we’re gonna be bad, but we’re proving them wrong.”