With 37 points to show for his last 34 minutes of court time, Tyler Smith clearly is on a roll. And, with the Vols opening NCAA Tournament play Friday in Birmingham, that roll couldn't be arriving at a more opportune time.
"It was great to see how excited he was about playing," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said this week. "Down the stretch against South Carolina he certainly stepped up after a difficult start. He was just feeling great the entire game against Arkansas, particularly on the offensive end.
"He will tell you that, defensively, he did not make enough plays. But it was fun watching him play with the passion and the emotion, making big shots and big plays. It was great."
After one season at Iowa in 2006-07, Smith transferred to Tennessee last summer to be closer to his father, who was dying of cancer in Murfreesboro. Although Tyler was a third-team All-Big Ten selection in his only year with the Hawkeyes, he has elevated his game significantly as a Vol.
Last year, for instance, he made just 44.2 percent of his field-goal tries and a chilly 25.4 percent (16 of 67) from 3-point range. This year he is hitting 54.5 percent from the field and 40 percent (14 of 35) from beyond the arc. In addition, he has raised his rebound average from 4.9 per game at Iowa to 6.8 at Tennessee.
After noting that Smith "was 3 for 3 from 3" versus Arkansas, Pearl launched into a glowing recap of Tyler's contributions to the Vols' spectacular 29-4 record:
"He's only taken 35 3s but he's made 40 percent of them. He's gone to the foul line (136 times) more than anybody on the team. He leads us in offensive rebounds (89), defensive rebounds (134), leads us in assists (115)."
And, after dealing with his father's agonizing death, Tyler Smith also leads the Vols in toughness.
"He's a productive player, and he gives our guys courage," Pearl said. "He's a tough guy and a great teammate."
Smith started 29 of 31 games at Iowa last season and averaged 14.9 points en route to third-team Freshman All-America honors. The Hawkeyes didn't qualify for post-season play, however, so he is understandably pumped about beginning NCAA Tournament play later this week.
"I think he's hungry," Pearl said. "Certainly, anybody would be that didn't play in the Tournament last year."
A hungry Tyler Smith can be pretty dangerous. Just check the stats from his last 34 minutes of action.