Friday January 8th, 2010

In early June, Tyler Smith was thinking about Europe. Tennessee's star senior-to-be had just returned to Knoxville from the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, where he hadn't established himself as a first-round pick, and he told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, "I might go overseas if there's a lot of money over there."

Because he supports a young son, Smith had to take finances into consideration, and there might have been decent six-figure deals waiting in places such as Greece or Turkey -- or he could've gambled on getting drafted in the second round and earning a non-guaranteed NBA roster spot. Smith said then that he'd make his stay-or-go decision based on his gut feeling.

Within 10 days, Smith held a press conference to announce he was sticking with the Volunteers. Curiously, he said, "My gut feeling was leaning toward leaving. But then in talking to my family, friends and teammates these past few days, I've decided to return for my senior year." He'd been convinced that Tennessee could do something special in 2009-10, and also that he might have a better shot at making an NBA roster after another year of college. It seemed logical: Who would choose anonymity in Turkey or possibly the NBADL over the chance to take one more shot at a deep NCAA tournament run?

In hindsight, Smith would've been better off going with his gut. Istanbul would've been lonely, but he wouldn't have been in a Dodge Charger with three Vols teammates, two handguns (one with the serial number filed down), marijuana and open alcohol containers on New Year's Day. The car was pulled over by Knoxville police for speeding, and Smith was charged with possession of a firearm with the intent to go armed and alteration of an item's permanent identification number. He and teammates Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams (all of whom received various weapon or drug charges) were suspended from basketball following their arrests. And on Friday, Smith -- but no one else -- was dismissed from Vols for good. Just like that, the college career of a preseason All-America candidate was over, done in by his own horrible decisions.

This weekend was supposed to be huge for Tennessee's program -- in a good way. Top-ranked (and undefeated) Kansas is coming to town on Sunday to face the 16th-ranked Vols. An upset would've propelled them into the top 10 and established them as a legitimate challenger to Kentucky in the SEC East. But instead of talking about the Jayhawks on Friday, coach Bruce Pearl was talking about the incident, and in a statement released this afternoon, he said, "While we are not allowed to discuss specifics, we felt we had enough information at this time to dismiss Tyler Smith from the team." The statement also included quotes from Smith, including this one: "I am truly sorry for my actions in the recent case that everyone is familiar with. From the beginning, I have accepted responsibility for my actions and what I have been charged with, and I am very sorry that my decisions have affected Brian, Cam and Melvin."

Williams, Tatum and Goins remain suspended indefinitely. A depleted Tennessee team doesn't seem to stand much of a chance against Kansas -- and without Smith for the rest of the season, it's difficult to see them doing any contending in a strong SEC. The 6-foot-7 Smith was arguably the college game's best point forward; while his scoring numbers were down from his junior season (11.7 points per game compared to 17.4), he was putting up career highs in field-goal percentage (57.3), assists (3.7 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8-to-1).

Neither Goins nor fellow point guard Bobby Maze had emerged as a reliable floor general for the Vols, and much of their flex offense was run through Smith. The onus now falls on senior J.P. Prince, a 6-7 forward who was used at the point in last year's NCAA tournament, to become the team's primary playmaker. The Vols are likely to emerge from nonconference play 11-3 with just one quality win (at Memphis), and a suspension-induced free-fall could result in them missing the NCAA tournament.

As for what's next for Smith, he'll first have to navigate the courts -- and the fact that he was the lone player dismissed suggests that he's directly linked to the weapons found in the car. He'll be arraigned on Jan. 14 in Knoxville, and his attorney, Tennessee alum Don Bosch, issued a short statement Friday that said, "I hope and believe that the misdemeanor cases against [Smith] will be resolved quickly and consistent with the thousands of other true first offenders in Knox County."

Prior to this incident, Smith had been viewed as a sympathetic figure. He transferred away from Iowa in 2007 to be closer to his father, Billy, who was battling cancer in Pulaski, Tenn. Billy passed away in September 2007, and Tyler persevered to become a star at Tennessee, honoring his father's memory by having two teardrops tattooed under his left eye. Unfortunately, Tyler's legacy will now be that of a misguided soul who let his final college season go to waste, and did serious damage to his professional stock.

One NBA scouting director SI.com spoke with on Friday said he'd advise Smith to try to sign with an NBADL team as soon as soon as possible; at least two other draft-eligible players, Latavious Williams and Jeremy Wise, are currently playing in the D-League. "[Smith] needs to do a major image overhaul," the scouting director said. "I don't think he can just sit around for five months and get drafted, because people think he's an idiot right now, and he'll fall completely off the radar by the spring. If the D-League will let him in, he should go there, stay visible, and start learning how to play pro basketball."

In a Q&A Smith did with SI.com in September, he talked about how he was a big fan of the Disney Channel cartoon Phineas and Ferb. He said he liked the characters because "they were little kids with big imaginations. They can do whatever they put their minds to." Asked what he was imagining for '09-10, Smith said, "We want a Final Four and we feel like it's realistic. ... 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."

On Friday, his dream of a Final Four was dashed, and he left his team to soldier on without its valuable point forward. If Smith wants to realistically imagine a pro career, he'll need to do some growing up first.

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