Veterans Lead Tennessee’s Unexpected Success

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 23rd, 2015

Missouri and Tennessee spent this past offseason as kindred spirits, and not in a good way, as both Frank Haith and Cuonzo Martin bolted for new jobs. The pair left for different reasons — Haith was likely staying one step ahead of the mob, while Martin was looking for more job security — but both left their former schools in the same position. And both schools were already going to be facing challenges in 2014-15. The Tigers lost essentially all of their scoring with the early departures of Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown as well as Earnest Ross’ graduation. The Vols’ Sweet Sixteen squad was also decimated, as Jarnell Stokes left early and Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon ran out of eligibility. All of this turnover on the court and sidelines seemed to launch both programs into full-blown transition years, and transition years can be ugly.

Armani Moore has tripled his scoring and rebounding averages from last season (

Armani Moore has tripled his scoring and rebounding averages from last season (

Except that’s not always the case. The two programs that seemed destined for lockstep this year are now trending in very different directions. In some ways, the Vols’ win over the Tigers last Saturday was a microcosm of this notion. Knotted at 46 with under four minutes to play, Missouri turned over the ball on three straight possessions while juniors Armani Moore and Derek Reese made consecutive tough baskets at the rim to lead the Vols to their second conference road win. On Tuesday night, it was senior Josh Richardson and junior Kevin Punter who shined offensively as Tennessee notched its third SEC road win at South Carolina. At the risk of oversimplifying, that has essentially been the story of both teams’ respective seasons. Tennessee finds itself on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament discussion because its veterans have stabilized what could have been a very difficult rebuilding year. Missouri, on the other hand, does not have any returning upperclassmen playing significant roles, and the freshman and sophomore-heavy Tigers have struggled as a result.

Richardson’s importance was one of the clearest things in a murky league this season. The senior had played well in a supporting role well last year and landed on the SEC All-Defensive team. He seemed primed for a breakout year, and has cashed in as expected, leading the team in scoring (15.7 PPG) while doing a solid job running the point (1.2 ATO) for the first time in his career. His defense hasn’t dipped, and he’s as valuable to his team as any player in the league. But he hasn’t been alone. Richardson had an off night against the Tigers, but the Vols had enough to win largely because Moore (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Reese (10 points, four rebounds) picked up the slack. Both undersized forwards were used sparingly last year and are among the most improved players in the SEC. Reese has doubled his scoring output (2.4 PPG to 5.6 PPG) while Moore has tripled both his scoring (3.1 PPG to 9.7 PPG) and his rebounding (2.2 RPG to 6.9 RPG). This has allowed the Vols to weather understandably up-and-down years from sophomore Robert Hubbs, and freshmen Detrick Mostella and Willie Carmichael.

The same has not been true for Missouri, as the Tigers’ third-straight loss to the Vols followed by a midweek defeat at Texas A&M dropped them to 7-11, and marked the first time the program has suffered two three-games or more losing streaks in the same season since Quin Snyder’s last go-round in Columbia (2005-06). To be fair, Kim Anderson simply doesn’t have as many veterans at his disposal. Graduate transfer Keith Shamburger has been solid running the point and Keanau Post has contributed a bit the last two weeks after being a non-entity before that, and that has been it. Junior Ryan Rosburg, who played a lot last year, has all but lost his spot in the rotation. This has meant that the Tigers have leaned heavily on a slew of freshmen and sophomores, and this inexperience has been the cause of many of the team’s struggles, including turning the ball over 20.4 percent of the time (229th in the country).

Anderson has talent and the playing time his young team is getting should pay off in the future. But at Tennessee, Donnie Tyndall’s underclassmen may not be playing as much but are getting the feel for winning — a key to program-building. Finding ways to win in a transition year is the mark of a strong program, and the Vols are going down that track. Could they become a viable NCAA Tournament team? None of their five losses is bad (VCU, NC State, Kansas, Marquette, Alabama) and they have wins over Arkansas, suddenly-resurgent Kansas State and inconsistent Butler. They are also the only team in the league with three conference road wins. Whether this is enough to truly plant them on the bubble is up for debate, but the fact that is even a discussion is a big positive in Tyndall’s inaugural year.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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