The missing piece
Smith (Iowa to Tenn.) joins line of impact transfers
Posted: Thursday July 19, 2007 1:32PM; Updated: Thursday July 19, 2007 2:34PM
When Roy Hibbert disrupted draft boards by announcing, on May 23, he was returning to Georgetown for his senior season, it seemed unlikely a more important piece of player news would emerge from the summer. What, after all, could be bigger than a 7-foot-2 Lottery Pick putting the NBA on hold?
The development made the Hoyas an easy No. 1 in SI.com's Offseason Winners list, which had the misfortune of being compiled on June 20 ... just two days before something did, improbably, trump Hibbert's decision. Word leaked out of Knoxville on June 22 that Tyler Smith, the Iowa freshman phenom who transferred to Tennessee to be closer to his ailing father, had been cleared by the NCAA to play immediately, rather than in 2008-09. Smith, a 6-7 forward who averaged 14.9 points and 4.9 rebounds last season, is no Hibbert. He won't be drafted within 20 picks of Big Roy, won't appear on the Wooden Award ballot with Big Roy, won't be a first-team All-America with Big Roy.
What Smith will do is turn the Volunteers into legitimate national-title contenders -- and that means he is of paramount importance. The landscape of the '07-08 national championship race, in mid-June, included one team with all of its starters back -- Memphis -- and three more who were loaded enough to compensate for key draft losses. North Carolina still had the Tyler Hansbrough-Ty Lawson-Wayne Ellington trio, and Deon Thompson would slide in for Brandan Wright. UCLA would move Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to the 2-3 slots after Arron Afflalo's departure, and welcome in super-frosh Kevin Love at the four. Kansas would give even more minutes to sophomores Sherron Collins and Darrell Arthur, with point-forward Julian Wright gone from the rotation. The Hoyas and Vols, meanwhile, were lumped amid a second tier of powerhouses with lingering question marks.
Georgetown still has no sure answer as to who will inherit the go-to-guy role from Jeff Green. The Vols had a strong stable of guards but lost glue guy Dane Bradshaw, and were facing the same problem they did last year: a glaring lack of size on their front line, especially at power forward. Had UT coach Bruce Pearl been given the freedom to pluck a forward from another team's roster -- a la Seth Davis' annual "Jigsaw Man" concept -- he no doubt would have looked for someone athletic enough to thrive in transition, but also tenacious enough to battle for rebounds in the SEC. Someone kind of like ... Tyler Smith. "There's no question Tyler will help us," Pearl said. "Dane was a very important piece of the puzzle. He was an undersized four man and one of the tougher matchups in college basketball. Tyler was a very tough matchup at Iowa, too."
Vols sharpshooter Chris Lofton said he was at home in Maysville, Ky., when a fan there told him Smith had received the green light from the NCAA. Lofton, who like Hibbert, opted to return for his senior season when he could have entered the draft, was naturally pumped about the news. Adding Smith to the starting lineup -- even if he is only 6-foot-7 -- would force opposing defenses to pay at least some attention to interior and give Lofton more room to hit threes. "We need his style," Lofton said of Smith. "He's strong, physical and he's an inside-out kind of forward -- that's a dimension we didn't have."
That added dimension could very well be the key to the Vols reaching the Final Four in Pearl's third season. While the circumstances of Smith's arrival are not pleasant (he left Iowa following Steve Alford's departure, and was allowed to transfer to UT because his father, Billy, is battling lung cancer in Pulaski, Tenn.) he happens to be a near-perfect fit in Knoxville. And the odds of an elite Division I transfer aiding a deep tournament run with his new team are strong: Since 2000, there have been 11 transfers in the top six of Final Four squads' rotations. The common characteristic of the best transfers -- particularly Marquette's Robert Jackson and Maryland's Byron Mouton -- was their addition was not merely a case of the rich getting richer. It was a matter of filling an important void -- like Smith is doing at Tennessee.