Vols Picked To Win SEC

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

your mark?'

"He said, 'No I haven't.' He's hungry to make his mark on

Tennessee basketball."

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

wanting to."

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

the year."

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."