Jan. 16, 2007
Tyler Smith used to wear a military uniform every day.
“You couldn’t be caught without the Hargrave Military attire on,” Smith said. “If you didn’t have that on, you were in trouble.”
For fans that are used to seeing Smith in his Iowa Hawkeye uniform, that might be hard to picture.
“We had to wake up at five o clock in the morning, go eat, march, go to class, go to practice, march again at dinner,” Smith said. “Then we had study hall every night for two hours, 7:30 to 9:30, and then lights out at ten, couldn’t have any cell phones and had to shave all your facial hair.”
Just a year ago, that was Smith’s routine at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. Smith enrolled there for a postgraduate year after spending high school in Pulaski, Tenn.
Things are a whole lot different for him now – he’s in a new part of the country with a much different routine. And, of course, he’s averaging 15 points and 32 minutes as a true freshman in the Big Ten Conference.
Tyler and his teammates square off against Indiana tonight at 6 p.m. (Iowa time) in the first of two road games for the Hawkeyes. The game will be televised live by ESPN. Coach Steve Alford’s squad plays at nationally ranked Ohio State.
So what has been the biggest surprise about the transition?
“I think school,” Smith said. “To play, you’ve got to go to class. Not having anybody just to be like, `go to class,’ like your parents and stuff like that, I mean it’s different.”
Though the academics are different, his basketball success has been the same. As a junior at Giles County High School, he earned first-team all-state honors when he posted an average of 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
“I work on my defense a lot cause that was my problem coming in, Coach (Steve) Alford put me on Adam (Haluska), you got him running off four or five screens and he’s hard to guard. I mean by him putting me there, it has made me know how to play defense, fight through screens, things like that.”
A year before, as a sophomore, he was named tournament MVP after he led his team to a state championship.
“We were the first team to win the state championship in our school history,” Smith said. “We played (the championship) at Middle Tennessee State University, and the whole town came up there. When we got back to town, they let us drive downtown, it was just a big parade. It was awesome.”
Their trip to the state title was anything but a cakewalk – they almost didn’t make it out of sub-state.
“We thought we lost, because somebody tipped the ball in and it was like four-point-some seconds and they tipped it in so we thought we lost,” Smith said.
“Our coach told us on the bench, `we believe in miracles,’ so we threw the ball in, and our man caught it at half court, he pump faked and then he dribbled once, shot the ball and it went straight in, game over.”
Smith’s team also won the championship game at the buzzer when the team’s point guard hit a floater in the lane at the last second.
So when Iowa coach Steve Alford is asked what attracted him about Smith as a recruit, the answer is simple.
“Everything,” Alford said. “Big time IQ for basketball, understood how to play, top 50 player in the country coming out of high school. The evaluation part was really a no-brainer.”
When he goes home to Tennessee, Smith said he still gets plenty of recognition — both for his high school success and now for showing up on national television as a Hawkeye.
But this winter break was a little bit more low-key. “I didn’t really go out on the town `cause I have a little son and I was just trying to spend my time with him cause it was his first Christmas and I just wanted to be with him.”
He did indulge in some Southern food, “grandma food” as he said, while he was home. “She got sweet potatoes, ham, turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, all that good stuff, pinto beans.”
When he comes north and back to school, he has to leave that all behind. “Oh yeah, I love the college life,” Smith said. “The only thing about it is being away from my son, but that’s not really nothing because my mom will try to bring him up.”
“I mean that’s what I’m here for, to make a better life for me and him, just being here at college and enjoying this.”
Part of that enjoyment and ease of transition can be attributed to Smith living with senior guard Mike Henderson, who’s a simultaneous mentor and friend to the younger Smith.
Smith said the two talk a lot and that rooming together is one of the best things that could’ve happened. Still, he got a harsh welcome to practice when Alford assigned him to guard leading scorer Adam Haluska.
“I work on my defense a lot cause that was my problem coming in, coach put me on Adam, you got him running off four or five screens and he’s hard to guard,” Smith said. “I mean by him putting me there, it has made me know how to play defense, fight through screens, things like that.”
“He’s been better defensively,” Alford said of his talented newcomer. “I don’t think he had a lot of urgency when he got here on the defensive end and he’s learning how important that is at this level.”
Of course, his offensive success hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s hitting 47 percent of his shots and is second on the team in scoring, assists and steals.
“There’s not a lot of freshmen that are in the major conference that are getting 15, 16 points a game and doing the things that he does on the backboard and seeing the floor very, very well,” Alford said.
“His turnovers are up a little bit but it’s really been sporadic, it’s been about two or three games where he’s had a lot and the others he’s really been good.”
For Smith, his floor time so far has been nothing but pleasing. “Coming in and just being able to play right away and the coaches believing in me, my teammates believing in me, it’s a great feeling.”
There’s one thing they won’t believe though: that he really used to suit up in military apparel every morning. Both Henderson and Tony Freeman joke with him about it regularly.
“They talk about they want to see a picture but they’ll never see a picture, I don’t have them pictures anymore.”
There is a way he could prove to his new teammates how different school was for him not too long ago: he could teach them how to march. “Nah, they don’t need to know how,” Smith said.
He’ll let them join in his march on the court.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Gregg Found, a freelance writer from Iowa City.