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October 12, 2006

Notebook: Smith key to Vols' plans

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The phone calls started the morning of Aug. 30 and didn't stop until late that night.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, his assistants and many players all wanted to offer their congratulations to Ramar Smith, the five-star point guard from Detroit who signed with the Volunteers in November.

With less than 48 hours left to register for classes, Smith's SAT score was validated and the NCAA Clearinghouse labeled him a qualifier. That was the end of a long, drawn-out process that had many doubting if Smith would suit up for the Vols this season. Even Pearl an eternal optimist - had his doubts.

The news was exactly what those in the program hoped to hear.

"Ramar was our top recruit coming into school and we felt we needed him to be part of our team," Tennessee junior shooting guard Chris Lofton told Rivals.com. "He's a great ballhandler and defender. With him, we feel the sky is the limit."

It's easy to understand Lofton's excitement. He, perhaps more than any other Vol, knows how much departed point guard C.J. Watson meant to the team. Lofton - who hit a school-record 114 3-pointers last season - spent his first two years in the same backcourt as the four-year starter, benefiting from Watson's savvy and constant unselfishness.

Smith gives them hope of having someone who can play a similar role and possibly have a similar impact. The roster includes three other point guards returning backup Jordan Howell and freshmen Marques Johnson and Josh Tabb but all are viewed as role players. Smith possesses the athleticism and quickness to be a key fit in Pearl's up-tempo offense and defense.

"The (guards) don't have to help more with me out there," Smith said. "I can open things up for the wings more, too - and really break down defenders from the point guard spot.

"I've also been working had on my jumper. I think everybody is going to be surprised when it starts falling."

Seven days after finding out Smith would play, the Vols were hit with some bad news. Senior power forward Major Wingate, the team's leading rebounder last season, reportedly failed a drug test and was kicked off the team.

Still, thanks to a five-man recruiting class that includes Smith and four-star power forwards Duke Crews and Wayne Chism, Lofton believes the Vols can improve on their 22 wins from last season.

"I think we are going to be deeper. All five of the freshmen are real athletic and all are going to be really good, " Lofton said. "We'll have a lot of people coming off the bench. Last year we only played seven guys. Now I think we've got five guys who can step off the bench and play."

Any mention of Tennessee being deeper has to concern the rest of the SEC. The Vols arguably looked like the league's top team until fatigue started taking its toll down the stretch. UT lost five of its last eight games.

Pearl designed his system on making steady substitutions while at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He could have that luxury again.

Trivia question: Can you name the four No. 15 seeds to beat No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament? Hint: An NBA All-Star from the Phoenix Suns was on the winning side of one upset. (Answer at the bottom.)

Injury won't faze Washington big man

Missing the bulk of preseason practice can be a heavy blow for most freshmen, but don't expect it to have a large affect on Washington's Spencer Hawes. The highly touted center is expected to miss two to four weeks after he has minor knee surgery later this week.

Having grown up in Seattle, Hawes has been working out and playing pick-up games with many of the Huskies for the last two years.

Hawes also played under Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar at the FIBA Americas U-18 championships this past summer. Romar was an assistant on the staff, and they ran plays similar to ones the Huskies utilize.

That should be a big benefit by midseason - when Hawes will be counted on to provide a big presence in the paint and a scoring threat on the inside. With the loss of star Brandon Roy and their next two leading scorers, Hawes is expected to play a major role immediately.

Wildcat looks poised for big sophomore campaign

The NCAA allows coaches two hours a week to work with their players, and Arizona has been using the time to hold one practice a week for the last two months.

Sophomore small forward Marcus Williams, who seriously considered leaving for the NBA draft, dominated the most recent session. He scored at will on a variety of defenders.

Prize recruit Chase Budinger, who Lute Olson has called the best freshman he's ever had, started to show noticeable improvement. Budinger suffered from tonsillitis at the start of the school year and has slowly been working his way back into playing shape.

Big money, small feel

St. Joseph's Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse will undergo a $25 million renovation beginning in the spring, but Hawks fans don't have to worry about the venue losing its intimate feel.

Only about 1,000 seats are being added to the 3,200-seat venue that has long been considered one of the toughest places to play in the Atlantic-10.

The main additions will be a "basketball center" for the men's and women's teams, which include major upgrades to the locker rooms, facilities and coaches' offices.

The project is expected to take at least three years to complete.

Answer to Trivia Question: Richmond, Santa Clara, Coppin State and Hampton. Richmond beat Syracuse in 1991, Santa Clara and star point guard Steve Nash beat Arizona in 1993, Coppin State beat South Carolina in 1997 and Hampton beat Iowa State in 2001.

Andrew Skwara is the national college basketball writer for Rivals.com, and he files his national notebook every week. Click here to send him a question or comment for his weekly mailbag.

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