Eight Games, Pt. 6: Bruised Orange

Before

Tyndall got all of six months and two weeks before his own world began to cave in on him. On November 6, 2014, Jason King of Bleacher Report broke the news that Tyndall and his staff were under investigation by the NCAA for violations committed during his time at Southern Mississippi. The generalities of the report centered around what seemed to be illegal payments to players who weren’t yet academically eligible for the Golden Eagles.

“Even though they weren’t on scholarship, the players in question enrolled in classes at Southern Miss, lived in off-campus apartments and spent a year earning enough academic credits to make them eligible the following season, when they were placed on scholarship. This is standard practice under NCAA Proposition 48 rules, but the financial support these players may have received is under investigation.

Most of the recruits in question hail from out of state, which would’ve made their tuition fees even higher. Along with investigating how those fees were paid—and by whom—the NCAA is also looking into the academic records of some of the players, the source said.” – King

There were eight days until Tennessee was due to open its season against a frisky VCU squad that would later make the NCAA Tournament. Suddenly, no one was caring about the product on the court. These violations, if proven true, were pretty serious. The NCAA was and is not an organization exactly willing to promote illegal payments to their athletes. (It’s pretty funny writing that in 2021, obviously.)

It would only get worse. On November 24, two of Tyndall’s assistants – Adam Howard and R.J. Rush – resigned for reasons unknown, almost certainly due to the investigation. (Reports claim that Howard and Rush resigned prior to the season opener, and Howard in particular would grow to be an important figure in the investigation.) Tennessee hadn’t even made it out of November without their season crashing down around them.

The basketball indeed became an afterthought. That VCU game was a demolition (16-point loss where VCU led by double digits for well over half the game), which was then followed by unsurprising losses to Kansas (82-67) and Marquette (67-59). Tennessee was 2-3, directionless, and with a head coach some feared wouldn’t last the season. Yet again, Tennessee basketball seemed incapable of getting over the hump; it was always one controversy, one goof-up, or one ill-advised mistake away from falling down a cliff.

On December 11, The Tennessean reported that Tyndall’s contract said he could be fired with cause if the allegations against him were proven to be correct. Bruce Pearl’s show-cause for one small lie was three years; Tyndall’s for much more serious violations could easily be five or more. It was growing darker and darker for Donnie Tyndall, a man whose charm and charisma had allowed him into spaces few thought were possible at his previous stops.

To Tyndall’s credit, he managed to pull his team together. Three days after that Tennessean report, Tennessee defeated Butler – a team that would make the Round of 32 – by 12 points. Then they made it to conference play at 8-4 and seemed to get on something resembling a roll. 8-4 turned into 12-5 with a 4-1 conference record. Tennessee already had the same number of wins against KenPom top 50 teams they’d had in all of 2013-14 with a much better roster.

On January 20th, Tennessee defeated a good South Carolina team on the road by four points to get to that 12-5, 4-1 SEC record. That same day, Southern Mississippi announced a self-imposed postseason ban for the 2014-15 season, entirely because of the Tyndall-era violations they felt were quite serious. At some point, this slow drip of negative news can wear on everyone – fans, players, assistants, managers, and especially the head coach himself. Every new report grew worse; it all began to seem like this was heading towards an inevitable conclusion.

Whatever the cause may be, it was at this point that Tennessee’s season fully collapsed. A pivotal January 24th home game against Texas A&M turned into a disappointing home loss. Over the course of the next month, that turned into nine losses in 11 games. The team with almost no returning talent and a nearly-bare cupboard with what appeared to be a lame-duck head coach with major NCAA violations hanging over his head simply had no more to give.

Well…almost no more to give. In the midst of this horrid streak, Tennessee gave fans one truly memorable moment. On February 11, Tennessee traveled to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym. For a fair bit of the game, Tennessee led, but a solid-enough Vanderbilt team proved to be too much. With 15 seconds to play, Tennessee trailed, 65-60, after a Luke Kornet free throw. At this point in time, KenPom’s Win Expectancy metric gave Tennessee roughly a 1% shot of pulling it off. Which was entirely fair for a team in the middle of losing nine games in 11 played.

Kevin Punter felt otherwise about the proceedings.

That cut it to 65-63 with 11 seconds left. Then Tennessee fouled Riley LaChance. LaChance remains one of the best shooters in modern SEC history: 41.3% of his three-point attempts made in his career on 622 tries, an 83.2% free throw hit rate that was 87% in his freshman season. The odds of LaChance hitting both shots were good: around 69%, if you ask. Not so nice.

LaChance missed the first attempt. He’d hit the second to recover, but Vanderbilt was officially In Trouble, only leading 66-63. They wisely fouled Josh Richardson before he could get a three-point attempt up, but Richardson hit both free throws to make it 66-65. Punter fouled Wade Baldwin IV of Vanderbilt. (Has there ever been a more perfect Vanderbilt name?) Like LaChance, Baldwin was an excellent shooter, both from deep (42.2% for his career) and at the line (80.2%). The odds of Baldwin hitting both were around 64%. He also missed his first attempt, then hit his second.

Vanderbilt, up 67-65, were flustered beyond belief. It only made sense that Robert Hubbs III would come right down and tie the game to send it to a truly improbable overtime.

The game went back and forth in overtime, but Tennessee used four key free throws and several defensive stops in the final minute to take a 76-73 lead. LaChance would get one final chance to redeem himself after his missed free throw played a huge part in sending the game to overtime. A 41.3% deep shooter getting a game-tying attempt is just about as good as you can ask for. Didn’t matter.

This would stand as Tennessee’s most memorable victory of the regular season and probably their best win, period. Vanderbilt entered this game at 13-10, 3-7 SEC, so it seemed unimportant at the time, but they’d use this embarrassing loss to springboard themselves to a 19-12, 9-9 SEC finish. Entering the SEC Tournament as the 7-seed, Vanderbilt wasn’t quite on the NCAA Tournament bubble yet. However, if they paired a win over 10-seed Tennessee with a minor upset of 2-seed Arkansas the next day, they’d be staring down a battle with 3-seed Georgia (who swept Vanderbilt, but by 11 combined points) on Saturday. They still had a chance to make something serious happen.

Tennessee had nothing of the sort to aim for. At 15-15 and 7-11 in SEC play, they were simply playing for pride under a coach who could be coaching his final game whenever they took the floor with a roster that had one win in its last month of basketball. Maybe Tennessee could keep this close, but they had no real reason to be winning.

NEXT PAGE: Crooked piece of time

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