JaJuan Smith has gone from the bench to backcourt playmaker for Tennessee.
In his first season as a starter, Smith looks to build on the highest-scoring game of his career as the 25th-ranked Volunteers (3-0) face Coppin State (0-2) on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Smith, the Vols’ sixth man last season, scored a career-high 21 points as Tennessee beat UNC-Wilmington 87-75 on Tuesday night in the South Region championship of the NIT Season Tip-off.
Smith is averaging 14.3 points per game after posting 9.5 last season, when he averaged only three fewer minutes.
“I’m actually going to … work a little bit now on getting a few more looks for him and finding some ways for him to get more shots on the other side of the floor because he wants it,” said Vols coach Bruce Pearl, whose teams are 16-0 when scoring 80 points or more.
Smith was 7-of-10 from the floor, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range, taking advantage of the Seahawks focusing defensively on Chris Lofton. The junior also came up with four rebounds and five steals in 27 minutes.
Lofton, averaging a team-high 17.7 points per game, finished with 17.
Smith said he’s going to look to score more with opponents working to slow down Lofton.
“Chris is one of the best shooters in the nation. A lot of people are going to be keying on Chris,” Smith said. “I’m trying to bring some attention on the other side of the court.”
Tennessee, a young team starting two freshmen and playing four more, are exhibiting the type of pressure-packed, tough defense Pearl wants. They forced UNC-Wilmington into 32 turnovers.
The Vols are averaging 82.7 points per game while forcing 27.7 turnovers.
“That talks about our effort and what we do,” Pearl said.
Ramar Smith, Tennessee’s freshman point guard, started Tuesday and scored eight points in 22 minutes. He had been listed as questionable with an injured ankle suffered in Monday night’s win over Fordham, and was on crutches following that contest.
The Vols will meet Butler on Wednesday in the Season Tip-off semifinals.
Coppin State lost its 28th straight non-conference game Monday, 79-67 to Hawaii after dropping its season opener 94-43 to Virginia Tech on Nov. 10.
The Eagles are 1-30 all-time against ranked teams. Their only win over a Top 25 opponent was in 1997, when they beat No. 6 South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Coppin State is led by preseason All-MEAC first-team selection Tywain McKee, who’s averaging 16.0 points per game. McKee topped the Eagles with 15.4 points and 2.4 steals per game last season.
Coppin State plays 12 of its first 13 games on the road before opening conference play in January.
This will be the first meeting between the Vols and Eagles.