The latest subject of our Hoops Q&A series is Tennessee's Tyler Smith, a senior forward who pulled his name out of the NBA draft pool in June. Smith averaged 17.4 points and 5.8 rebounds last season for the Vols, who lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Luke Winn: You were supposedly hitting threes at a 75 percent clip in practice this summer. [Smith shot just 29.8 percent in games last year, a career low.] What's a realistic game percentage you're gunning for as a senior?
Tyler Smith: I'm trying to be up in the 40s. The lowest I want to be is high 30s -- like 38, maybe. Shooting has been a big point of emphasis for me in the offseason. I'm not out there trying to show people I'm a two-guard or anything; if I focus on shooting too much in games it would take away from what I've always been able to do, [which is] penetrate and make my teammates better. I just want to be able to knock down the shots when they're there.
LW: You're not a two-guard, but you are going to be playing more on the wing -- as opposed to the four -- this season, right?
TS: I'm looking forward to that, because as long as I can knock down open shots consistently, it's really going to open up my game, and make things better for everyone while guys like Wayne [Chism], Brian Williams and E-Man[Emmanuel Negedu] are down low.
LW: Do you think it's a good thing that the SEC has been in the news a lot this offseason -- even though most of it has been about Kentucky?
TS: I think it is. Because the SEC really had a down year last year. We had great games, but it really wasn't like the ACC, Big East, Big Ten or even Big 12, where a lot of their top teams were in the top 25. We really only had one ranked team, and we fell out of the polls. I think coach [John] Calipari did a great job bringing in the recruiting class he did. In a few years he might have a great dynasty up there -- but at the same time, we're trying to do the same thing here at Tennessee.
LW: Do you mind the fact that Kentucky seems to be ranked ahead of Tennessee in all the early preseason polls, even though you're bringing back a far more experienced team?
TS: Kentucky has everyone's attention, and you have to look at them as the team to beat. But right now, everything is just talk. Don't get me wrong -- they have a good group of players coming in. John Wall is probably one-and-done, and DeMarcus Cousins is probably one-and-done. They still have Patrick Patterson. But you can have a lot of talent and a lot of expectations and things might not follow through for you, if you can't play together. That's something we had trouble with last year. At the beginning of the year, we had all this talent, but we couldn't play together.
LW: At one point when you had your name entered in the draft this summer, you mentioned that you were thinking about just making the jump straight to Europe. Why did that come into consideration?
TS: It was just because I have a son, and I have things to take care of as far as my family is concerned, financially. But at the same time, my dream is to make it to the NBA, and I feel like I'm close. I thought the chances of me making it [to the NBA] after one more year of college were better than going overseas and then trying to come back.
LW: How close were you to actually going overseas?
TS: I never ended up talking to any [European teams] about it, or about how much money I could make. It was just an option. I talked with [former Vols star] Chris Lofton about that, because he was back [from Turkey] this summer. He's so quiet that he didn't tell me too much, but he did explain how different it was from being in the U.S. For me, it just came down to believing in how hungry my teammates here are, and believing that we can make a run this season. I take pride in being from Tennessee, and after we didn't finish out last year right, I want to change that.
LW: When you were starting out at your first school, Iowa [in 2006], I read that you had taken a job repairing air conditioners at a local Holiday Inn. That's a long way from weighing pro-hoops offers in Europe or the NBA.
TS: That was my first job. The school offered to help find us work for the summer, so I went and asked for a job, and the guy said, "You're going to be a maintenance man at Holiday Inn." Fixing air conditioners and things like that. The hardest day, though, was when we had to put new beds in every room. Big, king-size beds, and then take all the old mattresses out. That was maybe the hardest work I've ever done.
LW: What did you get paid?
TS: I don't think it was even $10 an hour. But it was something. Hopefully I can make it to the NBA, so I don't have to go through that again.
LW: You were at the NBA Pre-Draft Combine in Chicago this summer before you decided to go back to school. Since you got to see a lot of guys up close, were there any surprises when you watched the actual draft? Guys going lower or higher than you expected?
TS: The guy that didn't get drafted as high was DaJuan Summers [from Georgetown]. I worked out with him; he's talented and I thought he would have been a first-rounder. [Summers was picked No. 35 by Detroit.] A guy who went higher than I expected was my roommate up there, DeMarre Carroll from Missouri. He went first round [No. 27 to Memphis], but when he was talking to me, he said he thought it would be second, because he said he'd been through so many workouts. Usually the guys in the first round only work out a certain number of times, because they know about where they're going to go. He said he went through a three-week span where he didn't get to go home once.
LW: In your coming-back-to-school press conference, you wore a cardigan. I was impressed. You don't see that very often in college hoops.
TS: All summer, I had to dress and act professional -- be on time, little things like that. I'm trying to continue that as I work for [the NBA] next year. Because coach Pearl said, if they're going to invest millions in you, they want to see you look the part: nice and professional.
LW: I'm not sure about Knoxville, but where I'm at, in Brooklyn, cardigans are high fashion.
TS: They're in here a little bit. I'm trying to bring them back. You might see a few guys wearing them, but a lot of people are in a stage where dressing up is not cool. I wasn't cool with it until I had to do it this summer.
LW: Back when you jumped from Iowa to Tennessee in '07, you were kind of a trailblazer for the instantly-eligible transfer. And you had a very legitimate reason to do so, and get cleared by the NCAA -- your late father, Billy, was sick and you wanted to move closer to home. A lot of teams have tried to pull the same thing since, and sometimes for dubious reasons. What should be the standard?
TS: If it's a legit reason, and the parent is really ill, and you need to get back home now, then you should be granted that waiver. Honestly, when I was [leaving Iowa], it didn't really matter to me if I was eligible right away at Tennessee, and I wasn't even sure if it was going to happen, since the NCAA doesn't allow that a lot. I just think it was a blessing that came from my father, to let me get to play right away.
As for the guys who have tried to beat the system by moving back home if they don't like the coach or the school where they're at, well, I'm not the one who gets to make that decision [about whether they're eligible].
LW: You have a very visible memorial to your father on your face -- teardrop tattoos near each eye. Are there other ways you keep his memory alive that aren't as visible?
TS: Before each game, and even during games, you might catch me making a cross on my chest, and touching the teardrops and pointing up. Because it's something that, when I get down, and I'm facing something that I don't want to do, he was the one who was always there, pushing me to do it. So I find myself not only doing that [sign] on the court, but when I'm sitting at home, thinking of him, when things are going wrong, of even if I'm just thinking of not getting up to go to class. It's something I do to always keep him in my mind.
LW: Your dad told you not to hold grudges. You were initially committed to the Vols out of high school, but when they wouldn't release you from your scholarship commitment in 2005 [when Buzz Williams was fired and Pearl took the job], you were forced to go to Hargrave Military Academy for a year, delaying your college career. Weren't you at least a little ticked at Tennessee for doing that?
TS: Not at all, because I took it as an opportunity for me to step up my game at Hargrave. I got to play there with guys like Mareese Speights, who's in the NBA now, and Vernon Macklin, who's at Florida, Stefan Welsh, who's at Arkansas, and Armon Bassett, who was at Indiana and UAB -- guys who were all legit D-I players, for a year. Being around those guys helped my game a lot.
LW: Had Tennessee released you from that Letter of Intent, where would you have gone in 2005?
TS: I probably would have still gone to Tennessee. I wanted to have the chance to develop a relationship with them all over again. I would have restarted the recruiting process. I just wanted to get to know coach Pearl.
LW: Are you in on the Twitter craze?
TS: Yeah. I'm at tyler_smith_1. I'm getting a lot of feedback there. I think people really want to know what it's like to be a college athlete -- what we're doing, how we're training -- because a lot of people would do whatever it takes to be in our shoes.
LW: No crazy messages?
TS: I really haven't received any crazy ones. Just a lot of people congratulating me for coming back, or asking little questions, like, am I excited about football, or what do I think about coach Kiffin, or most of all, am I friends with Eric Berry.
LW: Eric Berry? Do you ever say, "Uh, hey, we have some decent basketball players here, too?"
TS: Yeah, but he is the guy who's the face of Tennessee football right now. He's done a lot in the three years he's been here. I talk about him like I'm a fan, not a [fellow] college athlete. When I go home, that's what I talk about.
LW: Who's the best Twitterer among athletes?
TS: I hear a lot about T.O., but I don't follow him. I actually have zero people that I'm following.
LW: Why zero?
TS: A lot of people have been asking me, "Am I gonna be the first person you follow?" But I really don't have anyone that I want to follow.
LW: That's mean. Even your teammates?
TS: I see them every day. I talk to them when we're on the court.
LW: What would it take for you to finally follow someone?
TS: I'll probably follow Eric Berry if I follow anybody. That's the man. Or maybe LeBron, that's the man, too. Or, of course, my man Bruce Pearl.
LW: Coach Pearl has a Twitter, you know.
TS: I know he does.
LW: I'm told you're also a big fan of Spongebob Squarepants. [Who is, incidentally, on Twitter as well.]
TS: I watch that all day. Well, that and my new cartoon, Phineas and Ferb. It's on the Disney Channel. It's these little kids with big imaginations. They can do whatever they put their minds to.
LW: OK then, if you, like Phineas and Freb, go into big imagination mode, what are you thinking of?
TS: Of course, a great season. We want a Final Four and we feel like it's realistic. At same time we've gotta compete in the SEC with all these great teams -- Kentucky, Florida, Ole Miss is gonna be tough, and South Carolina, too. We've got to compete with those teams first, and then work our way into the tournament. The biggest thing I'm concerned with this year is "team," though. If we play together, we'll succeed, and all the individual stuff will come along with it.