It should’ve felt familiar to the Vols.
They’ve been essentially playing from behind as a program since last April’s whirlwind restructuring of the program.
Roster turnover is the norm in college basketball. Players run out of eligibility, go pro early or transfer. But usually not to the extent that Tennessee experienced after Cuonzo Martin’s abrupt departure to California. When all the dust settled, the Vols were left with four returning scholarship players (Josh Richardson, Armani Moore, Derek Reese and Robert Hubbs III) and every single signee for the 2014 class gone.
First-year coach Donnie Tyndall pieced together a roster of transfers, junior college players and last-minute takes on the recruiting trail. It was a developmental-type squad surrounding a couple veterans and one rising star – Richardson. And that was before even more adversity came.
The NCAA started sniffing around Southern Miss, Tyndall’s old stomping grounds, causing an unneeded and potentially harmful distraction for the program.
Late addition and Memphis transfer Dom Woodson, the only true size and muscle on the team, made it just a few months before leaving the program. Jabari McGhee, one of the few emerging post options, was lost for the year due to injury. More depth such as Braxton Bonds, Brandon Lopez and Ian Chiles were all lost for injury or eligibility reasons.
A nine-man squad void of a true post presence, a natural point guard and any real depth was left to sink or swim in an improved SEC for a fan base that has grown to expect NCAA tournament appearances. So starting in a hole shouldn’t have stunned Tennessee against Arkansas. That’s really all the Vols knew this year.
But those obstacles aren’t the only things that defined Tennessee’s likely season-ending loss to Arkansas on Saturday or the 2014-15 season as a whole. The way they battled through them is also a huge part of the story.
“Well, that’s been our deal all year,” Tyndall said of the Vols after they battled Friday night to make it a two-possession game later before ultimately falling 80-72 to the Razorbacks. “You’ve seen us play about every game. We ended up playing 32 games and I think we played as hard as you can probably play for 31 and a half. The only game I keep going back to is the first half at home against LSU.
“Other than that, these kids gave me everything they had. You think about we got two skinny freshmen up front, a 6-7 post player, who is really a 3, 4 and a 6-4 post player who is really a wing player. We get 20 offensive rebounds against that team. That’s grit and that’s effort. And that’s competing for 40 minutes.”
And while the final results (16-16) weren’t what Tennessee fans are used to in recent years, this team isn’t a story about moral victories either. The Vols got plenty of wins they had little business getting. They might as well have started every game against teams with true post players and depth down 13-0. But they recorded wins against Kansas State, Butler, Arkansas, Vanderbilt (twice), LSU and others.
I, truthfully, wasn’t sure if they would get a dozen wins. Maybe even not double digits. It looked like they were heading for a one-and-done showing at the SEC tournament, but they erased a 13-point deficit against Vandy to steal a win and advance. It looked like Arkansas might blow UT right out of the gym, but the Vols made it interesting.
“This team never quits,” said Hubbs. “We’ve been down a lot this year. But we fight until the end.”
“As I’ve said all season, I love my team,” Tyndall added. “We certainly need to grow our program and add depth and size and all those things that come through recruiting, but these are good kids that competed every day and I’m really, really proud of them.”
Friday showed that the fight was there for this team, the talent and size just wasn’t.