Last Smith at UT set to make mark
Posted: Friday, October 24, 2008 5:53 pm
By: By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Bruce Pearl was doing his round of one-on-one preseason interviews with Tennessee players the other day when he got to Tyler Smith.
The Volunteers’ coach expected the standard answer of family, English class or girl troubles to his standard question, “What are you worried about?”
“He said, ‘I want to make my mark,’” Pearl said Wednesday at Southeastern Conference media days. “I said, ‘Tyler, we just won the league for the first time in 41 years. You don’t think you made your mark?’
“He said, ‘No I haven’t.’ He’s hungry to make his mark on Tennessee basketball.”
Smith already made quite an impact on the Vols by returning for his senior season instead of heading to the NBA. Largely because of that, Tennessee is the media’s preseason favorite to win the league and Smith is the pick for player of the year.
Never mind that the Vols lost their top two scorers from that milestone-setting team that rose all the way to No. 1, sharp-shooting guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.
Or that his point guard spot is unsettled and will likely be filled either by 6-foot-7 J.P. Prince or junior college transfer Bobby Maze.
Forget about that brutal non-conference schedule that includes games against Georgetown, Marquette, Kansas, Gonzaga and Memphis.
Pearl isn’t receiving any pity. On the contrary, he was even asked if this team could be better than the one that went 31-5 and won two NCAA tournament games.
He didn’t discount the possibility but said it was way too early to tell.
“I think we’re a talented enough team to win the league and we’re a talented enough team to make a run in the tournament,” Pearl said. “Can we be better than last year’s team? Gosh, I’ve had three practices.”
Pearl has reloaded with five freshmen, a redshirt freshman and JUCO All-American Maze, who played a year at Oklahoma. The Baby Vols include Parade and McDonald’s High School All-American Scotty Hopson.
He said the team has made considerable progress since mid-September, “and yet we’ve got the farthest to go of any team I’ve coached from this time forward. That’s how far we had to come.”
The journey is considerably shorter with the return of the versatile Smith, who averaged 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds and led the team in assists.
What kind of mark would he like to leave on the Vols?
“Win a national championship,” Smith said. “That’s what I want to do. I think it’s within reach but at the same time we’ve got a long way to go to get there.”
Still, he gave a hint of his priorities by saying “being one of the leaders of this team means more than being named SEC player of the year.”
Pearl also must replace forward Duke Crews and guard Ramar Smith, who were dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons. All told, five of last year’s top nine scorers are gone.
The heavy reliance on newcomers is why forward and Bolivar product Wayne Chism thinks the team isn’t tooting its own horn too much yet.
Plus, he said being a prep All-American is “not going to mean anything until they prove it in the SEC.”
“We can be that good. We’ve still got a lot of stuff to work on,” Chism said. “We’ve still got a lot of freshmen that are still learning their roles on the team.”
Rival coaches aren’t too sympathetic.
As Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings put it, “The Vols have about as much talent coming back as anyone.”