One cocky class

The most celebrated signing class in Tennessee basketball history showed up on campus last fall with great reputations and even greater expectations. The self-assured rookies weren't hoping to make the NCAA Tournament. They were EXPECTING to.

"Oh, yeah. No doubt in my mind," Ramar Smith said. "We had great players before we got here, so I knew we had a great chance of making it. I knew that, with those players behind us, we were going to make the NCAA Tournament.

Smith's fellow rookies consisted of Duke Crews, Wayne Chism, Marques Johnson (since departed) and Josh Tabb. All had won consistently in high school, and all expected to continue winning at Tennessee.

"Oh, yeah! We didn't come here like we were going to lose no games," Smith said. "We came here confident. We had a top-five recruiting class. We weren't overconfident but, at the same time, we came in ready to go to work and ready to play hard."

Their hard work paid dividends last Sunday, when the Vols (22-10) were accorded a No. 5 seed for the 2007 NCAA Tournament. They'll face 12th-seeded Long Beach State (24-7) in first-round play Friday at 2:45 in Columbus, Ohio.

Tennessee's rookies have never played in The Dance, of course, but they know a lot about it based on their conversations with Vol veterans.

"You've got to play hard," Smith said. "It's going to come down to defense and rebounding, so that's the main focus in practice."

Like most freshman, Smith had an up-and-down rookie season. Switched from shooting guard to point guard shortly after arriving on campus, he struggled early with his new outpost. Smith committed 19 turnovers in his first five games last November, and lost his starting spot one game later.

He seemed to relax and mature during his days backing up junior Jordan Howell, however. When Howell suffered a broken finger, Smith returned to the starting lineup Dec. 23 against Texas and starred, posting 16 points, 9 assists and 0 turnovers in 38 sparkling minutes.

The flashy 6-2 guard was rock-solid thereafter, except for a 10-turnover performance Jan. 24 at Ole Miss. With 32 college games behind him, he is averaging 10.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per outing.

Reared in the Detroit suburb of Mt. Clemens, Mich., Smith signed with Tennessee last spring because he loved the Vols' up-tempo style of play. Naturally, he's thrilled that their first-round NCAA foe, Long Beach, likes a fast pace, too.

"I'm excited," he said. "They average 80 points, so it's going to be an up-tempo game. That's something I like doing, and I feel like we've got a great chance of moving ahead."

Whether the Vols move ahead or not, Friday's game represents the fulfillment of a long-time fantasy for Smith. He grew up dreaming of playing in the NCAA Tournament with his family cheering from the stands. Because of Columbus' proximity to Detroit, both aspects of his dream will become reality on Friday.

"It means a lot," Smith said. "The family gets to come down and watch me because it's close to home. I grew up watching the NCAA Tournament. I feel good about it, and it means a lot to me."

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