Losing a star player

Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl lost his star player 12 games into the season, when Tyler Smith was dismissed from the team Jan. 8. Former Vol coach Don DeVoe can relate.

DeVoe lost his star player early in the 1981-82 season, when Gary Carter was dismissed due to academic deficiencies. The '82 Vols overcame that loss to claim a share of the SEC championship, however, and DeVoe thinks the 2009-10 Vols may be able to overcome Smith's absence in similarly successful fashion.

One key, DeVoe says, is having a veteran coach to calm the troubled waters.

"I think it helps to have experience," he said. "I was in my third head coaching position (following stints at Virginia Tech and Wyoming). This is Coach Pearl's third coaching position. When you've had experience you don't panic. You look at your team, assess where you have to bolster the team and you find new leadership."

DeVoe's experience came in especially handy in '82 because he had to overcome the dismissal of two key players.

"When we lost Gary Carter we also lost another starting guard, Ed Littleton," the former Vol coach recalled. "We lost 40 percent of our starting lineup that particular year."

Pearl can empathize. In addition to dismissing Smith, the current UT coach suspended Brian Williams, Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum. Williams remains suspended. Goins and Tatum were reinstated after sitting out four games each but neither is seeing meaningful action to date.

DeVoe recalls that the '82 Vols were frustrated by the actions of Carter and Littleton - much as the 2010 Vols were frustrated by the actions of Smith, Williams, Goins and Tatum.

"Everybody was really upset," DeVoe recalled. "They felt like those two let everybody down. That was the feeling of all the guys. Their indifference toward their academics was the problem, plain and simple. Players are selfish to a degree."

Carter, a 6-3 guard, was averaging 20.2 points per game and shooting a sizzling 59.7 percent from the floor at the time of his dismissal. His absence created a huge void in terms of both production and leadership.

"Gary Carter was having a fantastic year; he had a chance to be first-team All-America," DeVoe recalled. "And he was a great leader in terms of his on-floor leadership."

Replacing Carter's leadership was an even bigger concern than replacing his scoring. Replacing Tyler Smith's leadership is just as important in 2010, DeVoe believes.

"You just have to have the other players step forward," the former coach said. "You need that leadership out on the floor. Now you have to find someone who can give you leadership in the locker room, give you leadership when you travel."

The '82 Vols got that leadership from a couple of reserve guards who proved capable of filling key roles once Carter and Littleton were dismissed.

"We had a great situation," DeVoe recalled. "Michael Brooks and Tyrone Beaman stepped up for us. Brooks was versatile enough to play the point or the off-guard spot, and he was an outstanding long-range shooter. He also had great leadership skills."

Much as Brooks and Beaman rose to the occasion for the '82 Vols, DeVoe sees senior Wayne Chism doing the same for the 2010 Vols.

"Now that Tyler Smith is no longer on the team, Chism has stepped up and filled the void," DeVoe said. "I see him wanting the ball in the low post, calling for the ball and scoring. Then when they don't play him on the perimeter he knocks down shots from out there, like he did against Ole Miss.

"You have to find that guy (to pick up the slack). Brooks and Beaman stepped up for us many years ago, and that's what I see with Chism this year. He has come on like gangbusters. Chism has become a bona fide candidate for SEC Player of the Year. If he could just not commit stupid fouls he could really do great things."

Chism isn't the only player picking up the slack for the 2010 Vols, however. Several teammates are contributing more since the suspensions were announced.

"Scotty Hopson is a really talented young man," DeVoe noted. "Skylar McBee has shown he can step up and play more minutes. Josh Bone has stepped in and looked like a scholarship player. Of course, he started some games at Southern Illinois before transferring to Tennessee, but he's proving to be a really good defender, a very competent ball handler and a good shooter. Steven Pearl isn't a scorer but he does a real capable job of doing little things to help the team sustain itself.

"This team has a lot of talent. Even with Tyler Smith and those other guys out, they've played well."

The 2010 Vols played well enough to go 5-0 without Smith before suffering a 78-63 loss Saturday at Georgia. The setback shouldn't be too surprising. DeVoe says the absence of a star player such as Tyler Smith is far more critical on the road than at home.

"I think they really caught a break in that those first four games (following the suspensions) were at home," the former coach said.

DeVoe's 1981-82 Vols didn't have that luxury. Still reeling from the dismissals of Carter and Littleton, they had to try and regroup away from home.

"Sometimes the quirk of the schedule doesn't allow you much time to touch up your deficiencies," DeVoe said. "Right after Ed and Gary were found academically ineligible we went out to the West Coast (Far West Classic in Portland) and lost two of three games. But then we came home and won eight consecutive SEC games."

Another factor working against the '82 team was that it had to overcome the loss of two starting guards in Carter and Littleton. Replacing a forward - even one as talented as Tyler Smith - is probably a little simpler task.

"It's easier when you have your guards coming back," DeVoe said. "Guards very much control college basketball."

In addition to losing critical leadership, the '82 Vols lost some critical depth when Carter and Littleton were dismissed. The team seemed to run out of gas in late February and March.

"You played 18 SEC games in those days, and we won our first nine that year," DeVoe noted, "but we only won four of the last nine. We were able to build a little bit of a cushion and get to the finish line OK."

In addition to sharing the SEC title, the 1982 Vols won a game in the NCAA Tournament before suffering a three-point loss to third-ranked Virginia.

Perhaps the 2009-10 Vols can overcome the loss of a star player and have a great season, just as the 1981-82 Vols did. DeVoe believes that could happen, in spite of Saturday's loss at Georgia.

"I think Georgia is going to be a real factor (in the SEC race), and I think Tennessee is still in excellent shape," he said. "They still have enough talent, size and athletes if they continue to play really, really hard.

"I think Tennessee hit a bump in the road but I don't think this diminishes their chances to a large degree."


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