NCAA probe clouds start of Tyndall's season

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall wants to focus on building his new team.

It may not be that simple.

As Tyndall prepares to make his debut in his first power-conference head coaching job, he does it as the NCAA looks into his past at Southern Mississippi.

Southern Mississippi acknowledged the review last week after a Bleacher Report story indicated the NCAA was investigating potential rule violations from Tyndall's two-year tenure. The NCAA and the school haven't disclosed the focus of the probe, and attorneys for the school and Tyndall haven't commented.

Still, as Tyndall starts the season Friday against No. 15 VCU at Annapolis, Maryland, the inquiry raises questions. What happened? Will it compromise his new position at Tennessee? Could it take his attention away from the court?

For his part, Tyndall has said he'll cooperate and he says he's confident it will work out.

''We won't let it be a distraction, and it shouldn't be a distraction,'' Tyndall said after a preseason victory over Lenoir-Rhyne.

It's still early to know how the controversy may affect the season, but it could definitely be a problem in recruiting. Tennessee signed guard Shembari Phillips and forward Admiral Schofield to letters of intent Wednesday, but Tyndall lost his top-rated recruit last week hours after news of the Southern Mississippi review broke when wing Chris Clarke withdrew his verbal commitment. Clarke instead signed with Virginia Tech.

Tyndall already figured to encounter plenty of challenges this season. Tennessee returns only four scholarship players from a team that went 24-13 and reached an NCAA regional semifinal last season under Cuonzo Martin, now the coach at California. The Volunteers lack a natural point guard and experienced big men. The Southeastern Conference media picked Tennessee to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the league.

This season represents a major test. But it's one Tyndall has craved since beginning his coaching career as an assistant at Iowa Central Community College, where he needed a part-time job in security to help support himself.

The 44-year-old Tyndall believes paying his dues by working his way up from the junior-college ranks helped prepare him for a bigger stage.

''We're going to face a lot of adversity,'' Tyndall said. ''I certainly faced a lot of that driving the vans in junior college and sleeping in gas stations and rest areas recruiting at Morehead State. There won't be too much that will faze me.''

Tyndall's greatest success came at Morehead State, where star forward Kenneth Faried helped the Eagles earn two NCAA tournament bids and upset Louisville in 2011.

He's run into rule problems before. Morehead State was placed on two years of probation for recruiting violations related to booster activity during Tyndall's tenure. The school's self-imposed penalties included the loss of one scholarship and other recruiting restrictions.

He spent the last two years at Southern Mississippi and took the Golden Eagles to the NIT each season. In his first year, Southern Mississippi went 27-10 despite returning just four players from a team that had reached the NCAA tournament the previous season.

Tyndall hopes that experience helps as he launches a similar rebuilding project at Tennessee.

''I think the biggest thing is you try to get guys to play with a confidence and swagger, even though we don't have a lot of returning players,'' Tyndall said. ''You just talk about (how) it's still basketball. It's 94 feet. The rims are still 10 feet high.''

His challenge is getting that message through while the NCAA probe plays out. So far, Tennessee has defended its search process, saying it had ''very specific conversations with the NCAA and school officials at Southern Miss'' about Tyndall's tenure, and no issues emerged.

Tyndall said he's addressed the matter with Tennessee's players. Now it's time to play.

''He said don't worry about it, and that was pretty much it,'' junior guard Kevin Punter said. ''That's really behind us. We have a season here, and we're just moving forward.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.