Considering the race-horse tempo at which he operates, Ramar Smith's ability to make so many plays with so few mishaps against such an athletically gifted opponent was amazing.
"Ramar does some things that make you go ‘Huh.' He's a great athlete," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "Handling the ball in a tempo like this – where you score this many points, and continue to not turn it over – it's a wonderful sight."
A shooting guard in high school, Smith struggled mightily with the transition to the point early this season. He recorded more turnovers (19) than assists (15) in Tennessee's first five games, then surrendered his starting job to junior Jordan Howell in Game 7. With Howell sidelined by a hand injury the past four games, however, Smith has posted 22 assists and just 6 turnovers since returning to first-team status.
"You shouldn't be surprised," Pearl said, pausing before adding: "I WAS surprised by what I saw from him early."
Freshman teammate Duke Crews certainly wasn't surprised by the big-play dimension Smith has shown the past two weeks. He had seen it before.
"I've been playing (AAU ball) with Ramar since I was 14 years old, so I know what he can do," Crews said. "Tonight he showed he can score, he can find people and he only had the one turnover."
The 6-foot-2 Smith showcased his explosive leaping ability on the six rebounds, on the two blocked shots and on two acrobatic tip-ins.
"I feel like I can jump now," he said, adding that November was difficult for him because "it was hard adjusting to the weight-lifting and the running. But I feel like I've got my legs back now."
Still, the most impressive aspect of Smith's game the past two weeks has been the poise he has shown in clutch situations. When Mississippi State surged into a 72-68 lead with 8 minutes left on Sunday, he scored six points and ran the offense flawlessly down the stretch to help fuel the game-winning rally.
"I just want to get my teammates a good shot or make a big play," he said. "When they (opponents) make a big spurt, I feel like I have to penetrate and kick or penetrate and score to slow ‘em down."
Several factors have contributed to Tennessee's 13-2 start this season. Probably the most dramatic is the development of Ramar Smith into a dependable and productive point guard.
"I see the court more," he said. "I wasn't seeing the court in the beginning but now I see the court and I look for my teammates to make big plays."
Tennessee's coaching staff is pleased with the progress but not terribly surprised.
"The coaches put in my head that I could be a great point guard in the SEC," Smith said.
Based on the last four games, he's on his way.