Potent points

Two of the top freshman point guards in college basketball will be matching moves Saturday in Columbus, when the 16th-ranked Tennessee Vols and the fifth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes collide at 1 p.m.

Tennessee's Ramar Smith is averaging 14.0 points per game over the past five outings, with 25 assists and a mere 7 turnovers in that span. He was SEC Freshman of the Week for the period ending Jan. 7 and is coming off a career-high 17-point performance in Wednesday night's 82-81 loss at Vanderbilt.

"I wasn't thinking about scoring," the 6-foot-2 rookie says. "I just wanted to get the win."

Ohio State will counter with 6-foot-1 Michael Conley Jr., who averages 9.0 points and 6.6 assists per game, the latter being the 10th-best mark in major college basketball. Some recruiting services rated him the No. 1 point guard prospect in America a year ago.

Vol head coach Bruce Pearl believes the competition between Smith and Conley will provide an entertaining sidelight to Saturday's game.

"Michael Conley and (Texas freshman) D.J. Augustin were everybody's top point guards last year … EVERYBODY'S," Pearl said. "And Ramar Smith was ours. I'm really proud of the way he's playing."

Smith and Conley are no strangers to one another. They squared off as AAU rivals several times in the past. Smith is eager to renew the rivalry.

"He's a great player, one of the best I've played against. He might be THE best," Smith said. "We're meeting up again to go back at it."

Asked how much of a challenge this will be, Smith replied: "It's real big. He was always quick, strong. He did everything, really. At the defensive end he knew how to get in there, beat you to the spot, take charges."

A converted shooting guard, Smith struggled with the adjustment to the point in November and early December. He seemed to be pressing.

"Most definitely," he said. "I was trying too hard to be a great point. But I learned things the first three or four games and got better."

Ultimately, a pep talk from Pearl helped him relax and become a much more effective player.

"Coach just told me to do my thing … that my teammates are depending on me and I'm one of the best players on the team and they look at me to do certain things," Smith recalled.

After playing a bit tentatively in the early games, Smith admits he is "real comfortable" at the point now. He is taking the ball to the basket more and becoming a much more productive scorer. He says his earlier timidity was no one's fault but his own.

"Coach wasn't holding me back," he said. "It was more about knowing which shots I could take and which shots I could make."

Having high-scoring wings like Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith around him has helped Ramar Smith to get his offensive game going, as well.

"I've got more patience now, so things are coming easier," he said. "With C-Lo (Lofton) and JaJuan shooting the ball like they've been shooting it, that opens up the driving lanes for me."

Tennessee's defensive effort was poor in the loss to Vanderbilt. Smith is convinced the Vols will improve in that area Saturday vs. the Buckeyes.

"I don't think we've got a bad defense. I just think we just have to tighten up those breakdowns," he said. "We've got to be prepared for good games like this because there's going to be a lot more."

Smith should be especially prepared for Saturday's game. In addition to the opportunity to face Conley again, he'll get a chance to showcase his skills for Buckeye coaches who did not actively recruit him, even though he grew up in Big Ten Country (Mount Clemens, Mich.)

"Not really," he said. "I got a few letters from them."


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