By Steve Williams
Not since the 1970s, when Tennessee signed Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King out of New York City, can I recall there being as much excitement over basketball recruiting as we’ve seen the past couple of weeks.
New coach Donnie Tyndall had to work fast to fill up a roster that was dwindling. As of Friday, only five scholarship players remained from the Vols’ 2013-14 squad, and there was speculation that another might be leaving. On top of that, all four of former coach Cuonzo Martin’s signees had decided to play their college ball elsewhere.
I doubt there’s another “Ernie and Bernie Show” waiting in the wings, but a flurry of signees, thankfully, had boosted UT’s Class of 2014 to six members. A couple of more may also be on board by the time you read this.
Tennessee fans are used to getting excited about a big haul of football signees every February. The sport of basketball is much different, of course, as it allows for only 13 players to be on scholarship. As basketball fans, we are used to seeing about three, maybe four new signees per year. And their pledges to sign could be spread out from one end of the calendar to the other.
The fallout from the latest coaching change put a huge hole in the Vols’ roster.
Now I sort of know how a Kentucky fan must feel following John Calipari’s unique system, which puts a practically brand new Big Blue team on the court each season. Well, at least a poor man’s version of the Calipari system, you might say.
Tyndall wasn’t bringing in McDonald’s All-Americans left and right, but the new Vols have solid credentials. They should fit right in with the new coach’s aggressive style of play. He said “toughness” was the common characteristic of this group.
Tyndall and his staff were unable to win the re-recruitment of Philip Cofer, a Martin signee whose father, Mike, had played at old Rule High in Knoxville before going on to a standout football career at UT and with the Detroit Lions. Florida State won out, but the Cofer family did say the UT coaches made an impressive effort.
Tyndall and staff did convince Robert Hubbs III to remain a Vol, a significant unofficial recruiting victory. Other Vols still on board are Josh Richardson, Armani Moore, Pops Ndiaye and Derek Reese.
Newcomers include 6-8½, 225-pound forward Jabari McGhee, junior college guards Kevin Punter and Devon Baulkman, a very confident Detrick Mostella, former Southern Mississippi commitment Willie Carmichael and graduate transfer guard Ian Chiles from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
McGhee averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds at Hargrave Military Academy. The 6-4 Punter, a first-team JUCO All-American from close to Grunfeld and King’s playgrounds, the Bronx, is a sharpshooter.
Mostella is an explosive 6-3 combo guard from Decatur, Ala., who played last season at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass. He was rated the overall No. 43 player in the nation in the Class of 2013. Baulkman is a 6-5 guard who scored 48 points in one game at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Fla. He previously had signed to play for Tyndall at Southern Mississippi.
The 6-8, 210-pound Carmichael of Apopka, Fla., was the Class 7A Player of the Year in Florida. He also is a former Southern Miss commitment. Chiles, 6-1 guard, led IUPUI with a 15.8 scoring average this past season.
Eric McKnight, a high-flying 6-9 forward and graduate transfer who starred on Florida Gulf Coast’s 2013 Sweet Sixteen team, verbally committed to UT and was expected to sign scholarship papers over the weekend.
McKnight has some baggage. His FGC coach had told him he would not be allowed back on the team for his final season due to an undisclosed team violation. McKnight also served a 12-game suspension to start the 2013-14 season and was suspended once the season before.
Hopefully, McKnight will make the best of a fresh start.
Tyndall, who himself had NCAA issues at Morehead State, which led to that school being put on a two-year probation, should handle McKnight with a short leash. After all, the NCAA no doubt will be keeping a close eye on Tyndall’s actions early on at UT.
Tyndall’s recruiting targets and how close he’ll toe the NCAA line already have some fans concerned. On this subject, Tyndall probably falls somewhere in between where UT’s past two coaches stood. Cuonzo is respected for high standards. There was never a worry regarding his players’ academics or off-court behavior. However, unethical conduct resulted in a 3-year NCAA show cause for Bruce Pearl.
“Our guys will handle themselves in the community in a first-class manner,” Tyndall said April 22 in his introductory press conference. “We’re not going to have thugs. We’re not going to have renegades as part of our program. It won’t happen on my watch.
“Will we have perfect angels? I doubt it, but I’m not a perfect angel. But we’re going to have people that are prideful to wear a Tennessee uniform and want to represent our university the right way.”
For the record, I still believe it’s necessary to have high-character ball players to win big. Hopefully, Tennessee will have a roster full of them.