Tyler's ready for Ole Miss

Pardon Tennessee's Tyler Smith if he feels a little deja vu Wednesday night.

Smith faced a lot of burly centers during his one season in the Big Ten, so he should feel right at home when No. 18 Ole Miss (13-0) visits Thompson-Boling Arena for an 8 o'clock tipoff with the No. 8 Vols (12-1).

The Rebels feature a couple of Big Ten-style bruisers in 6-8, 262-pound Dwayne Curtis and 6-8, 240-pound Kenny Williams.

"The Big Ten is rugged and physical, but this is going to be the same thing," Smith said. "Ole Miss plays the Big Ten style, as far as their big guys being rugged. They've got guys 250 and 260. That's big.

"I've never played in this conference but I think I'll be ready. As far as knowing what kind of physical play to expect, I think we're ready for that."

Maybe the Vols are ready, maybe not. They weren't ready last year. Curtis and Williams dominated play on the inside, enabling the Rebels to outrebound the Vols 40-34 and romp 83-69 at Oxford.

Smith was playing for Iowa when UT and Ole Miss met last season but he knows all of the gory details of that game.

"I seen the film, and you could see how they were displacing our guys," he said. "There's been a little bit of trash-talking from Ole Miss and things like that. Our guys know what happened to them last year and they really don't want it to happen again on their home court."

This will be Smith's second game against an SEC team. He played one last year as a freshman at Iowa.

"We played Alabama, and they got us by 12 or 15 points, something like that," he recalled. "They were pretty good last year. We played them before (star point guard Ronald) Steele got hurt. He's the one that gets them going. They're pretty physical, too, with (Richard) Hendrix down there."

Asked if he noticed a difference in the athleticism of Alabama's team compared to Big Ten teams, Smith replied, "It's about the same." Still, he believes he'll face better opposition in the SEC this year than he faced in the Big Ten last year.

"The SEC is the top conference in the country," he said. "You've got the two national championships (2006 and 2007) coming out of Florida. You've got Alabama. There are teams that you know have been great through the years, and that's great."

Smith transferred from Iowa to Tennessee to last summer to spend time with his ailing father. Although Billy Smith died of cancer in September, Tyler is still happy to be a Vol rather than a Hawkeye.

"We're 12-1, and that's what I wanted – to come and win," he said. "We've got so many players – two great seniors with Chris (Lofton) and JaJuan (Smith) and now J.P. (Prince) coming in and helping us out.... Getting to win is great."

Although he has spent just a few months in Tennessee's system, Smith is picking it up quickly. He's averaging 12.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game but says he's still got a ways to go.

"I'm still learning because he (Pearl) is putting in a lot more plays," Smith said. "I'm learning the way he runs things and what he wants on offense and defense."

Tennessee's defense had better be in peak form Wednesday night. Ole Miss' greatest strength is its offensive rebounding, which just happens to coincide with the Vols' greatest weakness, defensive rebounding.

"They (Rebels) are at the top of our league," Smith noted. "They do a lot of spoon-feeding to their big guys. Coach wants us to make sure we deny them all the way to the basket because their big guys are great underneath."

Naturally, Pearl has been placing extra emphasis on boxing out and crashing the boards in practice this week.

"These last couple of days that's what we've been preaching – rebounding," Smith recalled. "Sunday we kinda got outrebounded by the scout team, so he made us run."

If the Vols are to win the SEC championship and make a run at the Final Four, they will need to upgrade a couple of chronic weaknesses between now and March.

As Smith put it: "That's what's going to win championships – defense and rebounding."


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