KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Donnie Tyndall just took over Tennessee's program Tuesday, yet his job already has gotten tougher.
Tyndall knew when he was hired that he'd have to replace four of the top five scorers from a team that went 23-14 and reached an NCAA regional semifinal this season. Now the former Southern Mississippi coach must rebuild a recruiting class that has been decimated since his arrival.
Tennessee granted releases Wednesday to guards Larry Austin Jr. and Jordan Cornish, who signed letters of intent before former Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin left for California. Tyndall said Thursday he still wants to talk to forwards Phil Cofer and CJ Turman — the other two recruits to sign with Tennessee in November — but he believes they also are leaning toward seeking releases.
If Cofer and Turman sign elsewhere, Tennessee would have only seven scholarship players. Tyndall says all seven have indicated they plan to stay. Tyndall also has asked guard Quinton Chievous to reconsider his decision to transfer, a move that came when Martin was still coaching the team.
"I was hopeful that all four signees would end up coming to our school, but on the flip side, it usually doesn't happen that way (after a coaching change), let's be honest," Tyndall said. "I was hopeful it would be a little different, but not anything that's happened to this point has caught me off guard. It's the nature of the beast. You've got to be resilient and continue to plow through it."
Tyndall discussed realistic expectations for the upcoming season if Tennessee loses all four recruits without making significant additions.
"I won't tell my team this of course, but if I'm going to tell the public, I think a winning season," Tyndall said. "You're talking about seven guys, only one double-figure scorer returning. You get the job basically around May 1st and (are) trying to sign guys who can help you win in the SEC. There aren't many of those guys left. I think a winning season, our fans won't want to hear that, but realistically that's probably pretty fair."
Tyndall noted that could change depending on what happens in the offseason. He may add some junior-college prospects, transfers and perhaps some high-school recruits. But he won't hand out scholarships simply for the sake of filling his roster.
"If we go into this next season even two or three scholarships short, I'm not going to be concerned," Tyndall said. "I just hope that everyone understands this first year could be somewhat challenging."
Tyndall says his coaching staff will include Al Pinkins, who spent the last three years as an assistant at Mississippi. Tyndall and Pinkins previously worked together as Middle Tennessee assistants.
Tyndall also is bringing his Southern Mississippi staff with him. Adam Howard and Chris Shumate will join Pinkins as assistants. Jareem Dowling will have a player development role.
They're entering a familiar situation.
When Tyndall arrived at Southern Mississippi in 2012, the Golden Eagles returned only four players from a team that had gone 25-9 and reached the NCAA tournament under Larry Eustachy, now at Colorado State. Rather than rebuilding, Southern Mississippi went 27-10 and advanced to the NIT quarterfinals.
"We were tremendously inexperienced, but we plugged some holes that summer, like we'll do here," Tyndall said.
That experience suggests Tennessee won't necessarily struggle next season. Tyndall says his goal every year will be to win the Southeastern Conference. Tyndall says he's succeeded by relying on players with the toughness to outwork opponents.
Southern Mississippi's roster this season included seven junior-college transfers and two Division I transfers. Tyndall says his recruiting approach will change now that he's in the SEC. He plans to target Tennessee, Georgia and Florida while emphasizing Memphis.
"At this level, you have to for the most part recruit top-100 type high school players and build it with high school guys," Tyndall said. "This first year could be a little different because it's so late in the process. Trying to get the best high school players, there just aren't many of those out there right now. I do think moving forward you'll have a timely junior-college transfer or four-year transfer sprinkled in with predominantly high school guys."