Where's Tyler?

Once the centerpiece of Tennessee's offense, All-America forward Tyler Smith has been harder to find than a four-leaf clover lately.

The Vols didn't need much scoring from the 6-7 senior in a Game 8 defeat of Middle Tennessee, so his 7-point effort was no big deal. As head coach Bruce Pearl put it: "I know that when we play teams where he's going to be required to score more in his matchup, he will."

Maybe ... maybe not. After scoring 10 points in a Game 9 defeat of Wyoming, Smith produced a career-low 3 points (on 1-of-6 shooting) in a 77-55 Game 10 loss at Southern Cal last Saturday.

Having posted a mere 20 points in the past three games combined, Smith's lack of production is becoming a concern. He averaged 17.2 points per game last season but is scoring at a mere 11.3 clip this season. He already has had three single-digit scoring games this season - one more than he had in 34 contests last season.

If Tennessee is to challenge unbeaten and third-ranked Kentucky for supremacy in the SEC East, the Vols will need more from Smith than they've been getting recently.

"We'll look at different ways to utilize him," Pearl said. "Tyler's got to work harder offensively to get himself open and take advantage of his matchup. He's got to be more aggressive looking for ways to be productive."

Following his 10-point showing against Wyoming Smith said he's "taking what the defense gives me," adding that: "I'm not looking for my shot as much as I used to. When big games come I might have to do it differently. But my teammates are making shots, and until it changes, I'm going to keep on doing that."

His teammates stopped making shots in the Southern Cal game, but Smith was unable to pick up the slack. His only basket came on the putback of a missed free throw. He did not generate a single bucket out of Tennessee's transition attack or its halfcourt offense.

It should be pointed out that Smith leads the Vols with 38 assists and ranks among the national leaders in assist/turnover ratio at 4.2 to 1. Even when he isn't producing points, he is contributing. But Tennessee needs him to produce points, as well as assists.

"He's our playmaker," Pearl said, "and he's got to be able to make plays for himself."

Tennessee's 22-point loss at Southern Cal team was so ugly that some Vol fans are convinced the season is about to spiral out of control unless some hero comes to the rescue. The most likely hero, of course, is Tyler Smith.

"I've said it before: We go as Tyler goes," Pearl said. "Tyler's our best player.... If Tyler struggles in a game, we're going to struggle as a team."

Consider the USC game Exhibit A.

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