BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Bruce Pearl was doing his round of
one-on-one preseason interviews with Tennessee players the other
day when he got to Tyler Smith.
The Volunteers' coach expected the standard answer of family,
English class or girl troubles to his standard question, "What are
you worried about?"
"He said, 'I want to make my mark,"' Pearl said Wednesday at
Southeastern Conference media days. "I said, 'Tyler, we just won
the league for the first time in 41 years. You don't think you made
"He said, 'No I haven't.' He's hungry to make his mark on
Smith already made quite an impact on the Vols by returning for
his senior season instead of heading to the NBA. Largely because of
that, Tennessee is the media's preseason favorite to win the league
and Smith is the pick for player of the year.
Never mind that the Vols lost their top two scorers from that
milestone-setting team that rose all the way to No. 1,
sharp-shooting guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.
Or that his point guard spot is unsettled and will likely be
filled either by 6-foot-7 J.P. Prince or junior college transfer
Bobby Maze. Forget about that brutal nonconference schedule that
includes games against Georgetown, Marquette, Kansas, Gonzaga and
"My team's not ready for the schedule that we put together,"
Pearl said. "You put anybody's schedule down against our schedule,
we've got the toughest schedule in the country."
Pearl isn't receiving any pity. On the contrary, he was even
asked if this team could be better than the one that went 31-5 and
won two NCAA tournament games. He didn't discount the possibility
but said it was way too early to tell.
"I think we're a talented enough team to win the league and
we're a talented enough team to make a run in the tournament,"
Pearl said. "Can we be better than last year's team? Gosh, I've
had three practices."
Pearl has reloaded with five freshmen, a redshirt freshman and
JUCO All-American Maze, who played a year at Oklahoma. The Baby
Vols include Parade and McDonald's High School All-American Scotty
"It's a whole new cast of characters," Pearl said. "I've got
a lot of guys that haven't accomplished anything yet, and they're
He said the team has made considerable progress since
mid-September, "and yet we've got the farthest to go of any team
I've coached from this time forward. That's how far we had to
The journey is considerably shorter with the return of the
versatile Smith, who averaged 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds and led
the team in assists.
What kind of mark would he like to leave on the Vols?
"Win a national championship," Smith said. "That's what I
want to do. I think it's within reach but at the same time we've
got a long way to go to get there."
Still, he gave a hint of his priorities by saying "being one of
the leaders of this team means more than being named SEC player of
Pearl also must replace forward Duke Crews and guard Ramar
Smith, who were dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons.
All told, five of last year's top nine scorers are gone.
The heavy reliance on newcomers is why forward Wayne Chism
thinks the team isn't tooting its own horn too much yet. Plus, he
said being a prep All-American is "not going to mean anything
until they prove it in the SEC."
"We can be that good. We've still got a lot of stuff to work
on," Chism said. "We've still got a lot of freshmen that are
still learning their roles on the team."
Rival coaches aren't too sympathetic.
As Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings put it, "The Vols have
about as much talent coming back as anyone."