Changing of the guard

Given that backup Ramar Smith clearly outplayed starting point guard Jordan Howell in recent weeks, Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl was expecting the player to suggest a lineup change.

He just expected the suggestion to come from the backup player, not the starting player. That's not the way it worked out, however.

Smith (8 points, 7 assists) outplayed Howell (5 points, 3 assists) in Game 14 vs. Ole Miss. Smith (6 points, 9 assists) outplayed Howell (6 points, 1 assist) in Game 16 vs. Vanderbilt. Smith (12 points, 6 assists) outplayed Howell (3 points, 1 assist) in Game 17 vs. Ohio State. Smith (10 points, 2 assists, 3 steals) again outplayed Howell (0 points, 0 assists) in Game 18 vs. Kentucky.

Pearl decided to start Smith ahead of Howell in Game 19 Saturday night against Georgia. When he told Howell of the move, the senior guard seemed relieved, rather than disappointed.

As Pearl recalled: "When I talked to Jordan about it he said: ‘Coach, if you didn't do this I was going to come to you.'"

Howell had started Games 4 through 18 and performed adequately. He just hadn't been performing as well lately as Smith.

"Ramar had outplayed Jordan four of the last five games prior to tonight," Pearl said following the Georgia game. "But I don't want my starters looking over their shoulder. It (switch) could've happened against Ohio State. It could've happened at Kentucky. It didn't. After the Kentucky game I couldn't hold it any longer. Ro deserves to start."

Smith rewarded his coach's confidence with a superior performance against Georgia – hitting 3 of 4 field-goal tries en route to 7 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 22 productive minutes

Howell did well off the bench, too contributing 6 points, 2 assists and a blocked shot in 16 minutes. Pearl figured that made the lineup change a win/win proposition.

"Ramar got eight assists and two turnovers, played good defense," the coach noted. "Jordan shot the ball better (2 of 4 from 3) and didn't have a turnover. We had 10 assists and 2 turnovers at the point guard position."

So, why did Pearl wait so long to make the switch?

"The reason I didn't do it sooner was that I was trying to send Jordan a message of confidence," the head man said, adding that Smith "never complained one time (about not starting). He didn't ask for it."

Smith says there's a simple reason he never went to Pearl to request a spot in the starting five.

"Just playing with great players, it really doesn't matter about starting," he said. "We're all going to get equal time."

That's true. Despite starting only four games, Smith is averaging 20.9 minutes per game. Despite starting 15 games, Howell is averaging 19.6 minutes.

Although Howell is a better outside shooter, Smith's knack for breaking down a defense off the dribble is a better fit for Tennessee's uptempo attack. After finishing his freshman season with a flourish, however, he spent the first dozen games of his sophomore season in a pronounced slump.

"I think Ro was trying to play a different kind of game at the beginning of the year," teammate Tyler Smith said. "It wasn't his game. Ro's game is getting to the rack and making plays. Now he's getting in the lane, getting tough shots and dishing out the ball for assists a lot more."

Indeed. After posting just 41 assists in the first 15 games (2.7 per game), Ramar Smith has more than doubled his output by recording 25 in the past four games (6.2 per game).

His ability to break down Georgia's defense enabled the Vols to shoot a hefty 57.1 percent from the floor against the Bulldogs. He insists there's plenty of credit to go around, however.

"Everybody's been working hard in the gym," he said. "When you work hard, good things pay off."

With Smith getting Tennessee's transition game going, All-American Chris Lofton broke loose for a season-high 27 points Saturday night. Once he saw Lofton was on a roll, Smith got him the ball time after time after time.

"You've got to," Smith said. "He's hot, so you've got to find him and get him the ball."

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