KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee already has overcome inexperience and distractions to outperform preseason expectations.
The Volunteers believe that makes them ready to deal with the latest obstacles that have arrived just in time for the start of Southeastern Conference competition.
Tennessee (8-4) enters its SEC opener at Mississippi State (7-6) on Wednesday with only nine healthy scholarship players. Vols coach Donnie Tyndall announced Monday that reserve guard Ian Chiles was undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery and freshman forward Jabari McGhee could miss the rest of the season with a broken right foot.
''I think the nine guys we have are tough, hard-nosed kids who are excited about league play,'' Tyndall said.
After reaching the NCAA regional semifinal last year, the Vols were preseason picks by SEC media to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the league.
The Vols enter conference play on a four-game winning streak, are unbeaten at home (7-0) and have withstood the distraction of an NCAA review at Southern Mississippi, where Tyndall coached the last two seasons.
In November, Southern Mississippi acknowledged the investigation after a Bleacher Report story indicated the NCAA was looking into potential rule violations during Tyndall's tenure.
Last month, two Southern Miss players were released from the team, but current coach Doc Sadler said their departure wasn't related to the investigation.
Meanwhile, the Vols insist they don't talk much about how they were held in such little regard before the season.
''We know what we're capable of,'' senior guard Josh Richardson said. ''We know that we're not the 13th-best team in the league. We've just got to come out and do what we know (how) to do and prove everybody wrong.''
Richardson is one of only four returning scholarship players from the Tennessee team that had success last year, and he's the only Vol who has scored in double figures in an SEC game.
That inexperience explains why Tennessee ranked so low in that SEC preseason media poll. The Vols have come a long way since.
''(In the) preseason I was getting guys names mixed up and I didn't really know what to expect,'' Richardson said. ''Now I feel like there's three or four guys on this team where if I kick it out to them on the 3-point line, I can just start running back, basically.''
Richardson's a big reason for Tennessee's development during the season, as the natural shooting guard has made a seamless transition into a new role as Tennessee's main point guard. Junior forward Armani Moore, primarily an energy guy his first two years at Tennessee, has emerged as a more complete player this season.
But the Vols realize they have little margin for error because of a lack of depth, particularly in the frontcourt and at point guard. Tennessee lost one forward when Dominic Woodson transferred and will likely pursue a redshirt for McGhee if he doesn't return in the next three or four weeks. McGhee's foot injury has prevented him from playing in Tennessee's last four games.
They can't afford any letdowns in conference play. Tyndall's a newcomer to the SEC, but he believes the conference is as strong as it's been over the last few seasons from top to bottom.
''With the exception of Kentucky, you probably have 17 games where you could lose all 17 or win all 17,'' Tyndall said. ''It's going to be that balanced.''
Tennessee believes Tyndall's matchup zone defense gives the Vols a potential edge over SEC rivals who haven't seen much of it before.
''I definitely think it can rattle some teams,'' Richardson said. ''I know the first couple of days when I was on offense playing against it in practice, I didn't really know how to attack it.''