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January 17, 2008When Tennessee senior point guard Jordan Howell first heard that Tyler Smith might transfer to Tennessee, he immediately called his parents.
Howell knew his mom and dad would be able to understand and share in his excitement. They had seen Smith play when their son was a senior at Madison (Ala.) Bob Jones High and Tyler was a sophomore at Pulaski (Tenn.) Giles County High.
Giles County lost the game, something Howell reminds his new teammate of from time to time. But Smith dominated, leaving a lasting impression.
"I was going nuts when I heard we had the opportunity to get Tyler," Howell said. "I was hyped. When we played each other in high school, he was making all sorts of shots and dunking on us. He was doing a multitude of things. He scored 19 points in the first half. He was just a sophomore, but I knew then he was going to be a special player."
Howell was right. Smith has been special enough to offset the struggles of Tennessee's star player, the departure of its top assist man and the absence of a big frontcourt contributor.
Senior Chris Lofton, the AP's 2006-07 SEC Player of the Year, is in a horrid shooting slump. Lofton's field-goal percentage has dipped to 34.3 percent, and his scoring average has fallen from 20.8 points per game to 13.5. Dane Bradshaw, who led the Vols in assists and ranked second in steals last season, is playing professionally in Europe. Forward Duke Crews has been out since mid-December with a heart condition.
Yet the Vols, who play host to No. 16 Vanderbilt on Thursday night, are off to a 14-1 start and have risen to No. 6 in the AP Poll ? one spot higher than where they began the season.
Smith, a 6-foot-7 sophomore who took a strange and traumatic road to Knoxville, has been a key to the Vols' success. He has emerged as the most valuable player on a team that was loaded with proven veterans. Smith ranks first in rebounding (5.6 per game), assists (3.6) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7-to-1). Smith, who has been called "one of the most productive players in college basketball" by coach Bruce Pearl, also is tied for the team lead in field-goal percentage (57.3 percent) and steals (2.0 per game). He is third in scoring (13.3 points per game).
"(Smith) takes them to another level athletically," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "I believe Dane was a tremendous piece of the puzzle, and a lot of people were curious to see how they would fill that role.
Smith also is the Vols' go-to scorer, a title previously held by Lofton. With Tennessee trailing Kennedy's then- undefeated Rebels 83-81 with 1:41 left, the Vols ran two plays in a row for Smith in the final minute. Smith backed his defender down into the post, spun around and scored each time, including a game-winner that banked off the glass with 4.2 seconds left to give the Vols an 85-83 victory in their SEC opener.
"Coach (Pearl) knows I have an advantage because I'm being guarded by bigger guys," Smith said. "I can use my quickness to get around them and get to the rim."
Despite his success, it has been a bittersweet season for Smith. He transferred to Tennessee to be near his father, Billy, who died Sept. 19 of lung cancer.
"When I went home and really thought about it, I knew he would have been here," Smith said. "He would have wanted to be here for my first SEC game. That shot was for him."
Tyler credits his father for his unique skill set. As a freshman in high school, Smith moved from Texas ? where he was living with his younger brother and mother, Shawanda Kennedy ? to Pulaski, Tenn., to live with his father. Father and son had rarely seen each other up to that point, but they quickly became close.
Billy was a former star point guard at Giles County High, and he played for two years at Martin Methodist, an NAIA school in Pulaski. Billy spent hours with his son on the court, making him play multiple positions and teaching him everything he had learned.
"My Pops made me work on every part of my game," said Smith, who found out about his father's cancer shortly before he graduated from high school. "Dribbling, shooting and vision ? he taught me to see the entire court."
Soon after Billy's funeral, which was attended by all the Tennessee coaches, players and team managers, Tyler had two tear-drop tattoos placed an inch below his left eye so he would constantly be reminded of his father.
There was a time when Billy didn't want Tyler to go to Tennessee. Smith originally signed with the Vols in 2004, but after then-coach Buzz Peterson was replaced by Pearl, Smith asked to be released from his letter-of-intent. Tennessee refused, igniting some verbal sparring between Billy Smith and Pearl.
Tyler ended up not qualifying academically and spent the next season at a prep school, Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy. Plus, Billy was feeling better, and the cancer appeared to be gone.
After another series of recruiting visits, Tyler signed with Iowa over Kentucky and Pittsburgh. But midway through Tyler's freshman season, Billy learned that his cancer had returned. Tyler quickly decided he would move close to home as soon as possible. He finished the season averaging 14.9 points and 4.9 rebounds, numbers good enough to earn third-team All-Big Ten honors.
In the meantime, Pearl had transformed Tennessee into a national power with a high-flying style that recruits loved. Iowa released Smith from his scholarship in April, Billy Smith and Pearl reconciled and Tyler Smith enrolled in summer classes at Tennessee. The Vols petitioned the NCAA for a special hardship waiver in hopes that Smith would not have to sit out a year under transfer rules because of his father's health problems. The parties weren't sure the waiver would be granted, but Pearl called in July to let Tyler know he would be eligible this season.
"I was thinking we had a 50-50 chance," Smith said. "I thought I could use the time to work on my game. I'm still learning little things. But I didn't want to have to sit out and watch my teammates."
His teammates have grown particularly thankful that Smith is not a cheerleader this season.
"I don't ever want to think where we would be without Tyler," Howell said. "We'd be searching."
Thanks to Smith, they are searching for an SEC title and a berth in the Final Four.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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