"It just keeps getting better ... my first SEC game, hitting the game-winner in front of the home crowd," Smith said afterward, permitting himself a well-deserved grin. "It's great!"
While Smith's outlook keeps getting better, the prospect of containing him keeps getting worse. The addition of a reliable 3-point shot just provides one more weapon for an already imposing arsenal.
"He's been in the gym like crazy, getting that 3-point shot, and his 3-ball looked beautiful," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl noted. "He made two big 3s. That is going to make him even more difficult to cover and make him an even tougher matchup."
Unlike several of his Vol teammates, Smith is not in love with the 3-pointer. He knows there's a time to let it fly and a time to let it rest. With less than 90 seconds remaining and Wednesday night's game hanging in the balance, he recognized that his best option was to take the ball right at the Rebels' 6-8, 240-pound Kenny Williams.
"Obviously, Tyler made the plays," Pearl said. "He knew exactly what he was supposed to do. We've been working to get him that 3-point shot.... But he knew that was not a time for the 3-ball. That was not a time for the mid-range jump shot. That was a time to take it to the basket and put it right in his (Williams') chin. And he did. Both times."
Smith had not been the go-to guy at crunch time before but he looked awfully comfortable in that role vs. Ole Miss. As Pearl noted: "There was no confusion in my mind (as to) where we wanted to go with the ball."
Basically, Smith did everything Wednesday night except stop Ole Miss from grabbing 20 offensive rebounds. If the Vols are to be an elite team, he and his teammates must do a better job on the defensive backboard.
"We've got to man up," Smith said. "I don't think it's anything as far as drill work. We've just got to go after the basketball with two hands instead of trying to grab it with one."
Fans assumed Tennessee was getting a fine player when Smith transferred in from Iowa last summer. It turns out the Vols were getting a great player. He's averaging 13.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, while leading the team in assists (3.57 per game) and steals (2.1 per game). He's shooting 57.6 percent from the floor, 70 percent from the foul line and 40 percent (6 of 15) from 3-point range.
As Pearl noted: "He's one of the most productive players in college basketball if you look at his shooting percentages, his free-throw percentage, his assist/turnover ratio."
Now that he has proven himself capable of scoring from beyond the arc and scoring in the clutch, Smith appears to be the complete player.
"That makes us dangerous," teammate JaJuan Smith said. "He showed all of his game in all areas – 3-point to mid-range to layup. He had the defense off-balance. With him doing that, that just opens it up and makes the team better."