BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – You don't have to tell Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl what his team lost with the departures of senior guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith.
Still, his team was picked to defend its SEC regular-season championship by a wide margin in the league's media poll.
Pearl likes the choice, but he says it comes more from what other teams don't have than what his team has.
"With our veteran guards last year, I thought we were the No. 1 pick and I came here and said I thought we should be the No. 1 pick," Pearl said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. "I still think we should be, but partly because I don't see anybody else that jumps out at you and says they've got to be it."
Lofton and Smith were two of the best perimeter shooters in Vols history. Lofton finished fourth on the school's career scoring list, No. 1 in 3-pointers made and No. 2 in 3-point percentage. Smith was third on the career list in 3-pointers made and eighth in 3-point percentage. They had range, too. And they were the guys who hit the big shots for Tennessee.
Pearl also lost two other guards who were part-time starters, Ramar Smith and Jordan Howell. To say Tennessee's backcourt is untested is to say Madonna occasionally draws the interest of the paparazzi.
So Pearl will turn to junior forward Tyler Smith, the preseason SEC Player of the Year. Smith, a 6-foot-7 swingman, comes off a season in which he led the Vols in rebounding (6.7), assists (3.4) and field-goal percentage (53.6) and averaged 13.6 points. In short, he was everything Pearl hoped he would be and then some.
"Tyler Smith is one of most productive players I've ever coached in terms of points, rebounds, assists, steals, toughness, basketball IQ, will to win, courage," Pearl said. "He's a nightmare to match up with, just a nightmare."
Now it's up to Pearl to give other coaches nightmares by finding ways to get the ball to Smith. To that end, both have worked hard on Smith's game. Smith, who transferred from Iowa and was granted an immediate-eligibility waiver because of his then-ailing father (Billy Smith died before last season began), strongly considered entering the NBA draft before deciding better of it.
"I've been working on my perimeter game, the '3-ball,' " Smith said. "It's not like I want to take 10 3-pointers a game or anything, but I want to knock it down when I'm open. I want people to respect my shot."
Smith shot a respectable 37.8 percent from beyond the arc last season, but he had only 37 attempts. If NBA scouts see his jumper develop, the requisite athleticism and desire are there.
"Tyler came close to leaving (for the NBA draft)," Pearl said. "It was an agonizing decision. The factors were that as more and more guys jumped into the draft, Tyler's position dropped on the draft board. Tyler went from being at the end of the lottery in February-early March to late first round to being a definite second-round guy with no chance in the first round by the time all the younger guys were in place.
"He was very up in the air. In fact, one weekend we had decided to come out; we decided, 'Let's go.' It was the weekend I was supposed to go to Houston for the No. 1 recruiting event in the spring. Just before that weekend, we decided he needed to see. … He kept seeing guys go in that he was a better college player than – any of those guys – and it bothered him to the core. It bothered him so much I said, 'You need to go and prove that you belong out there. Prove it.' I stayed home that weekend and we went to work on getting him ready to test the waters and do the evaluations. After about 48 hours of guard workouts, he said, 'You know, I'm not ready. I'm not ready yet.' "
Smith should be ready to dominate the SEC. He has an all-court game that flourishes in Pearl's up-tempo style, and the coach will not be afraid to let Smith shoot more on the perimeter. Pearl said he primarily will use Smith at power forward, and he will continue to be a nightmare matchup away from the basket for other power forwards in the SEC.
While Pearl has no worries about Smith, he does have to shore up that backcourt. Returnee J.P. Prince will be one of three guards who starts, along with junior college transfer Bobby Maze and freshman Scotty Hopson. Maze played at highly regarded Hutchinson Community College in Kansas and was MVP of the Jayhawk Conference. Hopson is a five-star prospect who is the No. 2 shooting guard in the class.
"Bobby Maze and Scotty Hopson will have to step into the guard positions at point guard and 'two guard' and make plays," Pearl said. "… It's real tough to throw them in. It's reminiscent of my second year when Ramar Smith was put in that situation. But he had Chris Lofton next to him. Now it's Scotty Hopson next to him. It is tough. But they're both ready.
"Bobby is a guy who grew up in D.C. Bobby has been waiting his whole life for this right now. And he has worked for it. He bounced around, started at Oklahoma, then junior college. He has responded to adversity and now he's hungry. I worry that he's too hungry, but he can handle it."
Hopson is the kind of talent who could be a one-and-done player; only one SEC freshman made the jump last season, LSU's Anthony Randolph.
"Offensively, he (Hopson) can play," Pearl said. "He can shoot, get to the rim, he's a good passer, high basketball IQ. Defensively, he needs a lot of work. It's funny – they just revert to old habits. He never had to defend in high school. If a guy got by him, he just ran up behind him and blocked his shot. Pinned it. It's just so funny to watch them learn and know how far they've got to go."
How far they get will determine how far Tennessee goes.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.