After a year at Iowa, the return of this native son has the Volunteers thinking San Antonio
Not long ago it seemed unlikely that Tyler Smith would ever play for Bruce Pearl. A 6' 7" sophomore forward from Pulaski, Tenn., Smith signed with the Vols in 2004 but asked out of his commitment after coach Buzz Peterson was fired and replaced by Pearl. Pearl refused to release Smith, who then failed to qualify academically and spent a year at a Virginia prep school (Hargrave Military Academy) before going to Iowa. "I was all about relationships with coaches, and I'd known Coach Peterson since ninth grade," says Smith. "But there were never any hard feelings between me and Coach Pearl. It was just a big misunderstanding that got blown up."
It may be two years later than expected, but the gem among the Vols' newcomers this season is Smith, whose arrival gives Tennessee a scoring option to complement the perimeter threat of national player of the year candidate Chris Lofton. Smith made the All-Big Ten freshman team with the Hawkeyes last season, but the departure of coach Steve Alford and the failing health of his father, Billy, motivated him to transfer. "Once I figured out I wanted to come home, Coach Pearl had open arms," says Smith. "This is where I wanted to be: playing this style in this town for this university." (In June the NCAA granted Smith a waiver to become eligible immediately because of his father's lung cancer; Billy died in September.)
Smith's rampant athleticism fits Pearl's trademark full-court press. "Tyler's a complete player," says the coach, "a guy who makes plays that'll make you go ooh and aah, yet basketball purists will like that he's solid."
With Smith's arrival this team has serious designs on reaching the Final Four, as long as it can improve on the poor half-court defense that led to the Vols' second-half collapse in last season's regional semifinal loss to Ohio State. "Coach talks about defense all the time, and we know our offense will come out of our [defensive] style of play," says Smith, who's playing this season in honor of his father. "I think we have every piece to get to San Antonio." -- Grant Wahl
Issue date: November 19, 2007