Commentary

The next level can wait -- these games are just too much fun

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:18 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Josh Heytvelt saw trouble brewing as his Gonzaga teammate Micah Downs raised his arms and directed a disgusted face toward official Ed Hightower after being called for a foul.

[+] EnlargeJosh Heytvelt
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images Josh Heytvelt scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds in Gonzaga's win over Maryland.
So Heytvelt grabbed Downs by the back of his shirt, pulled him back and calmed him down. As he was doing so, he motioned to Hightower to indicate that everything was cool and there was no need to assess a technical.

"I'm just trying to do what I can," Heytvelt said.

Oh, and Heytvelt scored 22 points, grabbed nine boards and missed only one shot in Gonzaga's 81-59 victory over Maryland in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic on Friday night at Disney's Milk House.

Meanwhile, Heytvelt's senior classmate Jeremy Pargo couldn't have been more pleased to pass the ball around, forgo his shots and complement everyone else on a team that has received contributions from the likes of reserve Ira Brown (on Thursday night against Oklahoma State) and fellow stand-in Steven Gray (on Friday night).

"We're all playing with self-confidence and a sense of urgency, including myself," Pargo said.

Earlier Friday, Tennessee junior Tyler Smith, who like Heytvelt and Pargo made an informed decision to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft this past spring, was pushing Vols redshirt freshman Cameron Tatum on the way to the arena. Tatum needed a bit of a push, and Smith encouraged him that the semifinal against Georgetown could be his for the taking.

So, what happened? Tatum scored 17 points off the bench, making five of six 3s. Smith did quite a bit, too, scoring a game-high 21 points in the Vols' 90-78 victory over the Hoyas.

"I'm lovin' it," Smith said. "I came back to the school I always wanted to be at since I was 4 years old. For me to be a leader on this team, with all the young guys we have, this is great for me."

Sunday night, Heytvelt, Pargo and the Bulldogs will meet Smith and his troupe of Vols in a highly anticipated championship game (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

If you're searching for examples of why it's good to go back to school for a last hurrah, why it makes sense to play and stay in college for as long as you can, Heytvelt, Pargo and Smith should be atop the list.

And if Tennessee and Gonzaga make any kind of noise in March, it will be because of these players' contributions to their respective teams.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few scoffed at the notion that his two seniors would have had the chance to play on a similar stage had they bolted for the NBA. It's not that they're not talented enough, but the reality is neither would have commanded major minutes at the next level right away, if at all.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Pargo
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayJeremy Pargo is averaging more than eight assists a game running the point for Gonzaga.
"There aren't many guys in the NBA who get to be on the national stage and actually play a lot of minutes," Few said. "They're going to play in big games this season, but they wouldn't have been playing in big games had they come out -- maybe for a minute, or sit on the pine."

Few said Pargo and Heytvelt are much more mature this season than last. It's obvious to the casual observer, too.

Heytvelt has had all kinds of hype during his career at Gonzaga. He's battled injuries, suspension and multiple surgeries, and he's never been able to reach his potential. Talking to him here at Disney World, it's clear he has grown up.

His game has matured quite a bit, too. He took an alley-oop from Pargo in the win over Maryland that he might not have been able to reach a year ago, grabbing it with his right hand and flushing it down emphatically. He also made a pair of 3s. Even though the Zags didn't run their offense through him, Heytvelt found ways to be effective at both ends of the court, like sacrificing his body for an important charge.

Pargo was a gunner a year ago, trying to pop a shot as often as possible. His shot selection is better this season, even though he's averaging nine shots a game, the same number he averaged last season. There are so many scorers on this squad -- Heytvelt, Austin Daye (17 against the Terps), Matt Bouldin, Micah Downs and Gray, as well as a true backup for him in freshman Demetri Goodson -- that he doesn't need to force anything.

He just needs to be a playmaker.

"The people at the next level were great on that," Few said. "He heard it from everyone that they're not interested in his scoring. They want to see him run a team. If he can make others better in the half court, defensively, then he is reinforcing what they want to see."

Heytvelt wasn't healthy enough to declare for the draft because of a foot injury. But he did graduate and easily could have tried to play overseas instead of returning to Gonzaga for graduate school. Pargo, for his part, was in this same building this past May, hoping to stay in the NBA draft through his performance at the pre-draft camp. He went down to the final hours in mid-June before withdrawing his name.

"I'm pretty happy [with the decision] and will be happier if we win the game Sunday," Pargo said. "If we do that, I'll see the light at the end of the tunnel of what we can accomplish."

Pargo and Heytvelt both said the maturity on this team is the difference from a year ago.

And Smith's maturity might be the catalyst that pushes Tennessee throughout the grinding marathon to March.

[+] EnlargeTyler Smith
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesTyler Smith is happy he returned to Tennesee for his junior year. Vols fans are pretty happy he's back, too.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Smith was close to leaving school a few days after the 2007-08 season ended. Smith said his draft status was mid-to-late first round, and Pearl told Smith that if he was in the 20s, close enough to the lottery, he should consider going.

But as more players declared and he was projected to go lower, possibly in the second round, Smith reconsidered. He still wanted to work out for a few days after the Final Four before making his decision. Pearl said he canceled going to a recruiting event in Houston so he could be with Smith as he mulled over his decision. Once Smith worked out for a few days, it became obvious to him that he wasn't ready, so he knew he would return.

"If Tyler doesn't come back, then this team lacks leadership and toughness," Pearl said. "We wouldn't have that one breakdown player, either."

The Vols are hardly one-dimensional. Wayne Chism is proving to be a decent inside threat. Brian Williams is a bruiser in the post. New point guard Bobby Maze is getting to the bucket, freshman Emmanuel Negedu is proving to be a versatile contributor on the boards, J.P. Prince can make 3s off the bench and is tough to catch on the fast break, and Scotty Hopson, Renaldo Woolridge (who made three 3s against Siena on Thursday but wasn't as effective against Georgetown) and, of course, Tatum all can make shots.

"These guys are accepting my leadership," Smith said. "I know I'm not the only one, as Wayne is a leader, too."

Smith's career has been well documented. He was a Tennessee recruit for former Vols coach Buzz Peterson but decided to play for Iowa and Steve Alford instead. He starred in Iowa City but decided to transfer back to Knoxville to be with his dying father, who was battling cancer. Pearl said Smith knew he had to get back to be with his dad and made the decision prior to Alford leaving Iowa for New Mexico. Smith was granted immediate eligibility last season because of the extenuating circumstances. His father passed away last year. Smith gave a stellar performance in the SEC in 2007-08 and clearly is the 2008-09 preseason conference player of the year.

Now that Tennessee is facing back-to-back big-time games for the first time in this young season, Smith is shining bright yet again.

"I'm really enjoying this," Smith said. "I'm happy to be back at the University of Tennessee, where I always wanted to be."

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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