Dishing dynamo

The Tennessee basketball team's march toward the NCAA Final Four is getting an assist from Iowa transfer Tyler Smith. It's getting a bunch of them, in fact.

It isn't too surprising that the first-year Vol is averaging 13.1 points per game. It isn't too surprising that he has 113 rebounds, just one off the team lead. It isn't too surprising that he leads in steals and field-goal percentage (55.2), while ranking second in blocked shots.

The big surprise is that Tyler Smith leads the Vols in assists with 71. That's an impressive number for a 6-7, 220-pound power forward.

Saturday night's 85-69 defeat of Georgia was a typical day at the office for Smith. He hit 7 of 9 floor shots, scored 17 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, recorded two steals and blocked a shot. Somehow he also found the time to dish out a game-high 9 assists.

"Tyler stuffs a stat sheet," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "He is such a terrific playmaker. To have nine assists at the power forward position is tremendous. He can break you down, hit the open man and be incredibly unselfish."

That last sentence also describes former Vol Dane Bradshaw, Tennessee's starting power forward in 2005-06 and 2006-07. A converted point guard, the 6-4, 205-pound Bradshaw led the team in assists last season.

When asked if he is trying to fill a Bradshaw-type role by routinely setting up others, however, Tyler Smith shook his head.

"That's always been a part of my game – to be unselfish," he said. "Dane was a player in his own way. I was just trying to come in and help the team, not trying to fill his spot."

Smith is helping the team, all right. His incredible versatility has elevated Tennessee from a Final-Four darkhorse to a Final-Four contender. When he plays as he did vs. Georgia – approaching a triple-double with 17 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds – it's difficult to beat Tennessee.

"I think it's real tough," All-America guard Chris Lofton said. "When Tyler's doing his thing, getting to the rack and finding our open shooters – me, JaJuan and Jordan – I think we're at our best.

"Tyler's going to be that man to get that triple-double this year. He does it all – scores, rebounds, passes. He's just an all-around great player for us."

Tyler Smith returns the praise, noting that Lofton's hot shooting vs. Georgia (5 of 10 from 3, 27 total points) made life much easier for him on the inside.

"When Chris is hitting, it opens a lot of things," he said. "It opens up a lot of drives because Chris' man is not going to leave him at all."

Perhaps no Vol has benefited more from Tyler Smith's presence than Ramar Smith. Having another guy on the floor adept at setting up others takes a lot of pressure off of the sophomore point guard.

"He's one of our best breakdown guys," Ramar said. "He's playing a position that it's really hard to guard him at. He penetrates, kicks the ball out and gets people open shots. That's what Tyler does."

And "what Tyler does" is a major reason Tennessee is 17-2 and, perhaps, ready to make a run at the Final Four.

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