KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee guard Robert Hubbs III followed an injury-shortened freshman season by witnessing the departures of his coach and two of his best friends.
Hubbs considered following them out the door.
A conversation with new coach Donnie Tyndall helped persuade Hubbs to remain at Tennessee. Now he wants to return from a shoulder injury and live up to the acclaim that came with the former five-star recruit’s arrival on campus.
“He wants me to be the most improved player in the SEC, which I think I can do,” Hubbs said.
To reach that goal, Hubbs will have to make a successful comeback from surgery while adjusting to a new set of teammates.
Hubbs arrived at Tennessee as part of a three-man freshman class that also included A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson. Neither player is on campus anymore.
After California hired away former Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, Thompson transferred to Virginia and Davis left for UCF. The loss of his two classmates caused Hubbs to question his future as well.
“It definitely was difficult,” Hubbs said. “People didn’t understand how close we were. We were basically brothers. We did everything together. Once I found out they were leaving… I didn’t know what I was going to do. I prayed about it. I talked to my family. The best thing was to stay here.”
Hubbs thought staying was the best move in part because he believed he thrive playing for Tyndall, who utilizes an uptempo approach. Tyndall’s staff spoke with Hubbs and his family while the 6-foot-5 guard was deciding whether to stay.
“It was nothing too significant or tricky that I told him other than he’s a great athlete, and in our system and style of play I thought he’d fit in fantastic,” Tyndall said. “It was just a kind of get-to-know-each-other process, an opportunity for his family to get to know my staff as well. And it worked out great. We’re certainly excited Robert decided to come back.”
Tennessee needs a big season from Hubbs, one of only four scholarship players returning from the team that went 24-13 and reached an NCAA regional semifinal last year. Hubbs played just 12 games last season until his injury shut him down.
Hubbs said he was playing at about 75-80 percent before undergoing season-ending surgery. Hubbs acknowledged he was sometimes reluctant to drive to the basket because he feared the shoulder might pop out of place. He averaged 5 points and believes he can do much more now that he’s healthy.
“It can help me take my game to the next level,” Hubbs said.
His return could make a big difference on a Tennessee team lacking proven performers. Senior guard Josh Richardson is the only Volunteer who averaged more than 5 points last season. Even in limited action last season, Hubbs showed plenty of scoring potential.
“It’s going to be huge,” Richardson said. “He can shoot the 3 all night if you leave him open. He can get to the hole. He’s tall and athletic. He can do a lot.”
The Vols will need him to do plenty. Hubbs is ready for the challenge. After wondering about his future during a difficult offseason, Hubbs believes he’s right where he belongs.
“It was hard on me,” Hubbs said, “but I know I made the right decision.”