The Vols shot an icy 2 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half and scored just 33 points. So, instead of continuing to shoot over the Buckeyes' 2-3 zone, they gave the ball to reserve point guard Ramar Smith and let him drive through it.
Smith wound up taking 10 shots – most since Game 1 – and scoring eight of his 12 points in the second half. Whenever he found his path to the basket blocked, he dished off to teammates. As a result, he finished with 6 assists and the Vols finished with a 74-69 triumph.
“Against zone defense teams tend to stand around,” Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl said, “and we did everything we could – in our playcalling and the things we got ready – to do two things: One was to get the ball to Ramar and have him drive the ball to the basket. The second thing was to get the ball to the middle of the zone to Tyler (Smith) and let him drive it to the basket.”
Ramar Smith was so effective in penetrating the OSU zone that he wound up playing 26 minutes, 12 more than starting point guard Jordan Howell.
“Ramar was playing so well, I just told Tony (assistant coach Jones) to leave him out there,” Pearl said. “I was prepared to play Jordan Howell some at the 2 just to let Ramar stay on the floor.”
Smith, a 6-2 sophomore whose explosive quickness also makes him a top-notch defender, expended so much energy attacking the basket and defending the perimeter that he was gassed as Saturday's game entered the final minutes. Pearl grudgingly summoned him to the bench, even though Smith was doing a tremendous job of running the team.
“With about four minutes to go ... I didn't want him to take a possession off defensively,” Pearl noted. “He wanted to be out there but he knew he was tired. A lot of young guys would say, 'Look, I'm out here playing good. I'm dominating.' But he was like, 'Put Jordan in there.'”
After losing the No. 1 point guard job to Howell three games into this season, Smith has been playing exceptionally well the past month. He's a key reason the Vols have won 11 games in a row en route to a 16-1 record and a No. 6 national ranking.
“We've got a little swagger but we've got to keep pushing, keep fighting and keep getting better,” Smith said. “That's how you win – by getting better going on through the season – and I think that's what we're doing.”
Smith put together his best back-to-back performances of the season last week. He produced 9 assists and just 1 turnover in Thursday night's 80-60 defeat of Vanderbilt, then came back with the 12-point, 6-assist outing vs. Ohio State.
A native of Mount Clemens, Mich., Smith grew up in a state whose most heated rival is Ohio State. Maybe that helps explain his knack for playing some of his best games against the Buckeyes.
“Ohio State-Michigan ... I think there's something there,” Pearl said. “Ramar was excited about playing. He's played well (in all three games) against Ohio State.
“Maybe I should schedule more games against the Big Ten.”