Two days on crutches led Tennessee to list team leader Tyler Smith as "doubtful" for last weekend's game at Georgia. Then he tied his UT career high with 24 points, while grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out six assists in a victory.
"Truly heroic," Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl called Smith's resurrection after sustaining a severe bone bruise in his left knee against Gonzaga three nights earlier.
Now, Smith prepares for Kentucky on Tuesday night, when he can try to achieve redemption.
For all the accolades thrown his way, including the Southeastern Conference's pre-season Player of the Year, Smith was pretty ordinary against UK last season. He made eight of 23 shots in two games. Un-Smith-like numbers (20 points and 11 rebounds) earned his UK defender a catchy nickname.
"Vol killer" is what Pearl called Perry Stevenson on Monday.
"I've been hearing it," Smith said when asked about Stevenson, who scored 27 points and grabbed 21 rebounds against the Vols last season. "I respect him because, hey, he did it. I mean, he defended me real well.
"But at the same time, it's me. Personally, I think nobody can stop me if I play my game."
Stevenson's combination of height, mobility and shot-blocking thwarted Smith, who lacks a jump shot to keep the UK forward off balance.
"I don't want to say I was thinking he wasn't any good," Smith said of facing Stevenson again. "He was highly recruited."
Earlier this season against UNC Asheville, Smith recorded the first triple-double in UT history (12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists). He is the only SEC player ranked among the top 15 in points, rebounds and assists.
"He's a great player because he's a hard matchup," UK Coach Billy Gillispie said. "If you put a small guy on him, he'll eat you up. If you put a big guy on him, he's probably too quick for him."
Versatility isn't the only mark of distinction for Smith. He had two teardrops tattooed under an eye to memorialize his father, Billy, who died of cancer before last season. Smith, a native of Pulaski, Tenn., had transferred from Iowa to be closer to his father.
"He was the guy I would talk to," Smith said. "Every day I miss my father. Every day I see the reflection (in the mirror). Every time I see someone notice (the teardrops), it makes me smile."
Smith felt his father's presence when Gonzaga's Matt Bouldin accidentally fell into his left knee last week. A potentially season-ending tendon tear? No, just a bruise.
"Coach (Pearl) told me after the game that my dad was watching over me," Smith said of what might have happened. "I'm thanking God it didn't happen."
Junior Wayne Chism will be the primary defender on UK's star big man Patrick Patterson.
"He was dominant, but he wasn't dominant against Wayne," Pearl said of Patterson's 20 points and eight rebounds against the Vols in Lexington last season. "That's not issuing any kind of challenge. ... Wayne was in some foul trouble at Lexington, so there's no question that one of the things Kentucky will try to do is get Wayne in foul trouble because he's our best post defender."
Pearl likened Chism to Patterson.
"Patrick Patterson's got the numbers, but Wayne's not terribly far behind," the UT coach said. "... The focus of their offense is to pound the ball inside to him. I think if the focus of our offense was to pound the ball inside to Wayne, his numbers would reflect that.
"But Patterson is more of a back-to-the-basket kind of player. Wayne is a little bit more of an inside-out player, but it's a great matchup."
Defense on Meeks
Tennessee plans to have several players take turns defending Jodie Meeks.
"We all get him," Pearl said. "I tried to get him out of high school, but he wouldn't even talk to us. He had his sights set higher. ... He's a guy that your team has got to defend and give a lot of attention to."
The SEC made a dubious bit of history this week by not placing a team in the coaches' Top 25 poll sponsored by USA Today. That's a first, dating at least to the 1991-92 season, said Craig Bennett, the staffer at USA Today who runs the coaches' poll.
Arkansas came within 11 points of making the coaches' Top 25, Bennett said.
As for the media poll conducted by The Associated Press, Tennessee remained the only SEC team in the Top 25. The Vols slipped from 15th to No. 24. The last time the SEC did not have a team in the wire service's Top 25 was in the balloting for March 7, 1989.
When asked if the orange sport coat he wears for games against UK and Vanderbilt had been dry cleaned, Pearl said, "You know, that's a good question. I'm going to have to go in there and find it in the closet some place. It's probably not dry cleaned yet."