Right on time

Saint Nick isn't the only guy who shows up around Christmas-time each year. One Tennessee basketball player tends to surface around the holidays, as well.

That would be sophomore guard Ramar Smith. Consider:

On Dec. 23, 2006 he snapped out of an early-season slump by producing 16 points, 9 assists and 0 turnovers in a 111-105 overtime defeat of Texas.

On Dec. 22, 2007 he snapped out of an early-season slump by hitting all four of his field-goal tries, with four steals and just one turnover in an 82-75 defeat of Xavier.

"He started playing this time last year," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl noted on his post-game show. "Last year at this time we played Texas. That's when Jordan Howell got hurt, and that Texas game was really Ramar Smith's coming-out party."

Smith started the first six games of 2006-07, lost his job to Howell through erratic play, then reclaimed the No. 1 job in Game 12.

This season has been a virtual replay. Smith started the first three games, lost his job to Howell through erratic play, then took a step toward reclaiming the No. 1 job with his quality effort Saturday in Game 12.

Why does the Christmas holiday bring out the best in Smith? Pearl thinks he has the answer.

"It's something about going back home before Christmas," the coach said. "I think he probably didn't want to get abused back home by all of his friends and family going, 'How in the world can you be playing like you're playing right now? You're better than that.' Obviously, he showed that in a huge way."

J.P. Prince, who scored a game-high 23 points against Xavier, gave a portion of the credit to Smith.

"Ramar does a great job pushing the ball ... and that gives me a chance to get out and sprint," Prince said. "In the open floor we know that nobody can control our transition; we just score. As long as we're hitting our shots, I'm going to get my easy dunks and layups. While my teammates are dribbling the ball, I just run my lane, and that's what I do best."

Prince's speed getting his lanky frame up the court, combined with Smith's speed getting the ball up the court, put the fast in UT's fast break.

"Coach is always trying to get me to sprint on defense like I sprint on offense," Prince said. "When I see that dunk coming, I'm running like LeBron (James) to go get it."

Ramar Smith's quickness and penetrating ability make him an ideal fit for Tennessee's uptempo offense ... when he's playing with poise and purpose. After struggling for 11 games, he appears to be getting back on his game.

Just in the ... uh, Nick of time.

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