UT a top-five team with Tyler?

You couldn't have imagined this scene two years ago, not after the way Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl wouldn't release Tyler Smith. Not after Smith's father, Billy, ripped Pearl publicly. Not after Smith eventually signed with Iowa.

But time has a way of healing most wounds.

And now, Tyler Smith, an outstanding 6-6 small forward from Giles County in Pulaski, is an NCAA hardship appeal away from playing for the Vols this season. He was admitted to UT earlier this week.

How times change.

The animosity between the parties was very public two years ago. Smith had signed in November of 2004 with former Vols coach Buzz Peterson. After Peterson was fired and Pearl hired in the spring of 2005, Pearl said he would release Smith if granted the chance to recruit him.

But Pearl couldn't get a private audience with Tyler Smith because Billy kept interfering. Billy lost trust in Pearl when former assistant Chuck Benson didn't show for the first meeting between Pearl and the Smiths.

While it was said Tyler still wanted to attend Tennessee, Billy forbade it.

Tyler was believed to have purposefully made himself academically ineligible his senior season so he could attend a prep school, then sign with any four-year school of his choosing.

Meanwhile, Pearl stood fast, refusing to release Tyler because Pearl didn't feel he was given a fair chance to recruit the blue-chipper.

At the time, who could have ever imagined Smith playing for Pearl?

Imagine it.

While the first courtship ended in a messy separation, the reconciliation could lead to big things for both player and coach.

If Smith wins his NCAA appeal – his father has an advanced case of cancer – he could be the piece of the puzzle that elevates the Vols to unprecedented heights. Tennessee has never reached a Final Four. It's never been to the Elite Eight.

Smith averaged over 14.9 points per game for Iowa and ranked either first or second on the team in rebounds, assists and steals. If he could do that as a true freshman, what could he do as a sophomore in Pearl's system?

Pearl is eager to find out.

"I'm very excited about it,'' Pearl said. ``It's great he'll be able to come back to Tennessee. The circumstances have changed for Tennessee and in some ways, unfortunately, in Tyler's life, it was very important for him to be able to get back home.''

Pearl thanked the University of Iowa and new Iowa coach Todd Lickliter, who replaced Steve Alford, for being very ``professional'' during the situation.

"It's amazing the way this thing has worked out after the way it got started,'' Pearl said.

Pearl said he's always had a good relationship with Smith but the circumstances were difficult.

"It was a tough time, a tough time for him,'' Pearl said. "A new coach was coming in. Was the program quite ready? A lot of people were pulling him in a lot of different directions. He and his dad were caught and they just at that time weren't comfortable in going in our direction.

"It was difficult not to release him. But we felt like there were some things that weren't appropriate both from our standpoint and their standpoint. But I guess in the long run, it's all worked out hopefully for the best.''

Rick Stansbury, Mississippi State's veteran coach, believes Smith rockets Tennessee into a strong Final Four threat.

"Tyler Smith gives them a chance to continue to play the way they've been playing – small ball,'' Stansbury said. "He's a proven guy, a tough guy, an athletic guy. He averaged almost 15 points a game last year at our level, so there's no question if he's able to get eligible, Tennessee is as good as anybody in the country, a top-five team.

"Absolutely, Tennessee is the team to beat in our league.''

Pearl was asked, in hindsight, if he should have handled the Tyler Smith case differently.

"You always want to do what's in the best interest of the student-athlete,'' Pearl said. "I've been doing this a long time and I've never not released a student-athlete. That's the only time it's ever happened. But I just felt like there were circumstances that warranted that decision.''

Then Pearl found the silver living, as he usually does.

"If we'd released Tyler, there's a chance he wouldn't be coming back to Tennessee,'' Pearl said. "So I guess maybe in the long run, it's worked out best for the both of us.''

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