Selfless superstar

He postponed his NBA career to return for his senior year of college ball, so you'd figure he would be trying to raise his draft stock by scoring points in bunches this winter.

At least, that's what you'd figure if you didn't know Tyler Smith. Those who do know Tennessee's selfless superstar know better, however. The 6-7 senior forward's greatest attribute is not his ability to score inside and outside, his ability to break down a defense and make brilliant passes or his ability to defend and rebound.

Oh, sure he can do all of those things. But his most valuable attribute is his team spirit. When he takes the basketball floor he leaves his street clothes - and his ego - in the locker room. That's why he's recognized as one of the top players in college hoops, even averaging just 12.5 points per game. His willingness to put the team before himself inspires his teammates to do the same.

"I think when one of your best players plays as unselfishly as Tyler does, particularly on the offensive end, it just makes the rest of them share the sugar," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "That's when we play best ... when everybody's contributing."

Certainly, Tyler Smith is contributing his fair share. In addition to his points, he has contributed a team-high 31 assists through the first eight games. He also has contributed 38 rebounds, 9 steals and a 59.0 field-goal percentage - ranking second on the team in each category. Moreover, he probably leads all of college basketball in giving up good shots to give a teammate an even better shot.

"Tyler certainly has led by example," Pearl noted. "He's No. 2 in the nation in assist/turnover ratio, and that's ultimately what the point/forward position is all about. It's a position he and Dane Bradshaw have perfected."

Indeed. Smith has a 6.4 to 1 assist/turnover ratio based on 31 of the former and only five of the latter. It's rare when a forward leads his team in assists but Smith is one rare individual. When the Vols need a clutch basket he provides it. When they need an offensive rebound he provides that. When they need a timely assist he provides that. And, when the Vols need someone to take charge at crunch time he provides that, as well.

"I think Tyler really likes the things we do offensively," Pearl said. "With every opponent and every matchup, his role is going to change ... as it will with every team we play against."

Last Friday night Smith's matchup was 6-5, 230-pound Middle Tennessee brute Montarrio Haddock. Smith limited his opponent to 3 points on 1-of-6 shooting as the Vols improved to 7-1.

Tuesday night's matchup will find Smith guarding 6-10, 210-pound Djibril Thiam of Wyoming.

"He's going to go up against a 6-foot-10 power forward, going to give away a lot of size," Pearl noted. "Defensively, his responsibilities are going to be different."

Offensively, Smith's athleticism may be more than Thiam can handle. If so, Smith could score 20 points or more. Then again, maybe Thiam's height will limit Smith's opportunities. If so, Smith might settle for 7 points, as he did in Friday's 75-54 defeat of Middle Tennessee. That tells all you need to know about this preseason All-American.

"It says a lot," Vol teammate Bobby Maze said. "Even last year I thought Tyler was unselfish, even though Coach wanted him to score more. It says a lot about his character. It's good when your best player is unselfish."

So, why is Smith so unselfish? Because he'd rather score 7 points and see Tennessee win by 21 than score 21 and see Tennessee win by 7.

"I think Tyler understands that on this basketball team we have so many talented players that could go anywhere and average 20," Maze said. "I've played with these guys, and I know that (Cameron) Tatum and (J.P.) Prince could easily go to some of the lower teams in our conference and average 20 points a game."

Clearly, Smith realizes he's part of a balanced team that is more difficult to defend when everyone on the floor is a threat to score.

"He understands that on this team being unselfish and getting everybody involved - knowing it could be anybody's night - will help us win in the long run," Maze said. "I think Tyler is a competitor. He just wants to win. When he finishes with 7 points it doesn't surprise me. His facial expression doesn't change. As long as we get the W, that's all that matters."

That's all that matters to Pearl, too, which is why he appreciates Tyler Smith so much.

"I'm very pleased with Tyler's unselfishness at the offensive end," the coach said. "I know that when we play teams where he's going to be required to score more in his matchup, he will."


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