Tyler time in Tennessee

At 6-feet-10, Tennessee basketball player Philip Jurick doesn't look up to many people. He makes an exception, though – figuratively speaking, at least – for one Vol teammate.

Jurick, a rugged freshman from Chattanooga, nearly gushes when asked about Tyler Smith.

"This summer when Tyler first started coming in he looked like LeBron James out there," Jurick said, clearly awestruck. "I'd seen him in the Rocky Top (Summer) League but, when you're going against average players and then you see what he can do, it's incredible.

"One time I saw him do a spin move from the 3-point line and he just glided and dunked it. I'd never seen someone do that. He was so quick, and I didn't know he could handle the ball like that."

Smith, a 6-7, 215-pound junior from Pulaski, is coming off a 2007-08 season which saw him average 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, shooting 53.6 percent from the floor and 37.8 from beyond the arc. He was first-team All-SEC, honorable mention All-America and one of 24 finalists for the John Wooden Award as college basketball's player of the year.

That's a tough act to follow but he appears poised to do so.

"Tyler Smith is a lot better," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl said recently. "He has become one of our hardest workers, if not our hardest worker. That's a lot of progress.

"Tyler always played hard. Tyler always practiced hard. But Tyler didn't train hard. He didn't have the commitment in the weight room and the individual workouts that he's had this summer and this fall. It's a very good sign for a team when your best player is your hardest worker. It was that way with Chris Lofton, and it's becoming that way with Tyler Smith. That's something I'm very, very excited about."

Smith is such a rare talent that he considered jumping to the National Basketball Association following his sophomore season of college. Projected as a late first- to early second-round pick, he opted to return for another season at UT. It's a foregone conclusion that this will be his final season on The Hill, yet he seems totally focused on the Vols at present.

"I don't think he's doing anything to make a jump to the NBA right now," Pearl said. "I think he's working hard to try and be the SEC Player of the Year."

In a recent conversation with Smith, the coach heard his star player express concern that the Vols won't be as good in 2008-09 as the 2007-08 team that won the SEC championship and set a school record with 31 victories in 36 games.

"I asked Tyler why he's so worried," Pearl recalled. "He said, 'Coach, I want to make my mark on Tennessee.' In other words, he doesn't think he has yet, which is great. I think what that speaks to is the tradition of Tennessee basketball ... a Tennessee kid who wanted to play at Tennessee his whole life. It really matters how we do and it matters how HE does because he dreamed about this his whole life.

"He probably heard about it (Vol hoops) when it was good. He saw it when it wasn't as good as he wished it was. Now he's glad he's here and he's worried about making his mark."

Even with the riches and fame of pro ball beckoning, Smith seems more intent on making Tennessee a big winner than making himself a lot of money in the pros.

"It's not about what happens at the next level," Pearl said. "I do believe he will be a lottery pick at some point. But I don't know when, and certainly that's not our focus as we start the season."


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