Basically, Donnie Tyndall has seen this movie before and knows how it ends: Players who want to leave will just hold back a program. It's better for them to vacate now rather than later.
The pending departures of Davis and Thompson leave Tennessee with just five scholarship returnees from the 2013-14 squad – rising seniors Josh Richardson and Rawane Ndiaye, rising juniors Armani Moore and Derek Reese, plus rising sophomore Robert Hubbs, a five-star recruit one year ago.
Tyndall encountered this same type of mass exodus upon taking the Southern Miss reins two years ago as defections quickly reduced his roster to four returnees from the 2011-12 team. Instead of pleading with the remaining players and signees to stay, he thinned the herd even further by dismissing Keith Dewitt, a 6-foot-11 junior college transfer who had signed with USM head man Larry Eustachy the previous November.
"DeWitt was a big-time talent," Drew White, publisher of Scout's Southern Miss website, told InsideTennessee. "He would've been a good one. We had no size on the team, and a 6-11 guy gets kicked off, so we're thinking, ‘Whoa! This is not good.' But Coach Tyndall was sending a message."
That message? My way or the highway. Recognizing that DeWitt's lack of discipline would hurt the program more than his height would help it, Tyndall showed him the door. The move worked. Even with no one standing taller than 6-feet-7 playing significant minutes, Southern Miss led Conference USA in rebounding en route to a 27-10 record in 2012-13.
Moral of the story: No one is bigger than the team, even if he stands 6-feet-11. Tyndall hinted as much in a Monday afternoon tweet noting that "Darius and AJ have asked for their releases to explore their options. We want guys that want to be here. We hope they will return."
Davis, a 6-foot-10, 210-pound power forward, played in 25 of 37 games as a freshman last season, averaging 9.4 minutes, 1.3 points and 1.6 rebounds per game. Thompson played in all 37 games with 10 starts, averaging 16.8 minutes, 2.6 points and 2.4 assists per game. Assuming he does not return to Tennessee Thompson's departure leaves the Vols without a scholarship point guard on their 2014-15 roster. That prompted another Tyndall tweet:
"It's very important to find a PG. We will add another guard or two. We have many options that will play out over next few weeks."
Even counting two recruits added this week - junior college standout Kevin Punter and prep school signee Jabari McGhee - Tennessee has just seven scholarship players on its 2014-15 roster. The number could be six if Hubbs, reportedly mulling a transfer, follows the lead of Thompson and Davis.
White isn't surprised by the mass exodus at Tennessee. He believes Tyndall sets a tough tone that some players simply find unpalatable.
"He's a demanding coach," White said. "He knows exactly how to push the players, and he'll push them to their absolute limit. A lot of players don't like it. I've seen players walk off the court during practice. I've heard him tell the players: ‘There's one jerk on the team, and that's me.'"
Tyndall's tough-guy approach may have convinced A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson to seek greener pastures. Maybe it annoyed Hubbs, as well.
Clearly, playing for Donnie Tyndall is not for everybody. Based on Southern Miss' records of 27-10 and 29-7 the past two seasons, however, his approach apparently works quite well for the players who are willing to stick around.
"In the end," White said, "it makes them a mentally tough team."