How was this guy a walk-on?

Based on JaJuan Smith's performance Wednesday night against the most talented team in the SEC West Division, it's hard to imagine that this guy was once a walk-on.

It's hard to imagine that Tennessee didn't offer him a scholarship.

It's had to imagine nobody else in the SEC did, either.

So much for recruiting evaluations.

JaJuan Smith is much more than a complement to Chris Lofton. He's a compliment to Tennessee's team and the development skills of coach Bruce Pearl.

Smith has gone from averaging 1.9 points as a freshman to 9.5 as a sophomore to 15.2 as a junior. This season, he's at 15.0.

Who knows if Pearl would have offered Smith when Smith was toiling away in obscurity at McMinn County High School in Athens, Tenn.

Smith was a three-time all-state selection who averaged 25 points as a senior, 21 as a junior and 18 as a sophomore. He was his school's second all-time leading scorer. And not one major school wanted the man who has become a major player on the fourth-ranked team in the country.

Smith was at his best Wednesday night. He scored 30 points in the first 32 minutes, hitting 6-of-6 from 3-point range while the rest of his team was 1-of-9 at that juncture. He propelled Tennessee to an 83-57 lead before the Vols finished out a 93-71 victory over a Razorbacks team that had beaten three consecutive likely NCAA Tournament teams – Mississippi State, Florida and Ole Miss – by a combined 46 points.

Smith's final tally was 32 points, tying his career high, as Tennessee won a 29th consecutive home game.

How did this guy escape so many recruiters?

He is 6-feet-2, athletic, has sprinter speed, plays outstanding defense, can hit the 3 and exudes confidence.

Sure, he makes an ill-advised hot-dog play here or there, but bottom line, the Vols (22-2, 9-1 SEC) wouldn't be ranked in the top five and might not have the best record in the SEC if not for Smith.

Smith was coming off a poor shooting game at LSU, when he hit 1-of-8, 0-for-5 from 3-point range, while battling a flu bug. But in that game, he made a key steal and game-winning layup in the final 12 seconds.

Smith has turned into a better NBA prospect than his more heralded teammate, Lofton, last year's SEC Player of the Year.

Who says? Former Vol Bert Bertelkamp, UT's color analyst.

Bertelkamp said Smith's athletic ability gives him a better chance to play in the pros than Lofton, a gifted shooter but not as quick or as good of a defender as Smith.

Arkansas was focused on stopping Lofton, who twice had scored more than 30 points against the Hogs in three games. That mission was accomplished. Lofton scored just six points.

But Smith made Arkansas pay.

``It was a lot of fun,'' said Smith, who entered the game averaging 14.2 points and hitting 36.2 percent from outside the arc. ``I came (to the arena) early and got my rhythm and things were going down for me.''

Smith figured he might have some open shots with Arkansas eyeing Lofton.

``That's one thing I've got to do to help Chris - hit shots on the other end of the floor,'' Smith said.

Smith did that and more. He hit open shots, created shots and was terrific in transition, hitting 9-of-13 shots overall to go with four assists and four rebounds.

And when UT got the running game going, it left Arkansas behind.

``We can be one of the best teams in the country when we get it going,'' Smith said. ``We got the fast back in the fast break.''

Indeed. Tennessee was held to 47 points against LSU. The Vols had 43 in the first half against Arkansas and 50 in the second half.

The Vols came out on fire in the second half, using an 11-1 run to take a commanding 54-39 lead.

``Our main focus was trying to close out the game,'' Smith said. ``We hadn't closed one out all year and we were tired of having close games.''

Pearl couldn't have been more impressed with his impressive senior guard.

``Obviously, he just did a terrific job,'' Pearl said of Smith. ``I'm very, very proud of JaJuan. He battled through that flu bug. … He obviously was feeling it. We kind of go as he goes in a lot of ways.''

Smith was motivated by going against two Hog players who made All-SEC preseason – Patrick Beverly and Sonny Weems – while Smith did not.

``Those things matter to JaJuan,'' Pearl said. ``He just needs to keep on doing what he's doing.''

While Lofton failed to hit a 3 and scored just six points, he did have an impact. He held Beverly to five points and one rebound. Beverly had been averaging 12 points and 11 rebounds in SEC games only. Overall, it was an impressive win for Tennessee. But no one was more impressive than the former walk-on from McMinn County.


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