Tyler Smith was never going to be a University of Tennessee basketball lifer. Not with one of the most versatile skill sets in the Southeastern Conference. Not with AAU buddies such as Thaddeus Young, Corey Brewer and Jamont Gordon already playing for pay.
Especially not with young son, Amare, needing clothes and food and daycare.
No, Smith would play one season for the Big Orange after transferring from Iowa, play one season for his dying father, Billy, back in Pulaski, Tenn., then take the money and run.
At least that was the plan in the summer of 2007, when Smith earned a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately due to his father's terminal cancer following his freshman season with the Hawkeyes.
But then his father died before his first UT season began. And his game needed more refining than first thought. Finally, well, "I love it here," Smith said Wednesday afternoon at the Vols' preseason media event.
"I thought I would have been gone a long time ago, but it's great to be back for my senior year."
For various reasons, they all came back, five key seniors, assuming UT coach Bruce Pearl eventually lifts reserve guard Josh Tabb's indefinite suspension for a violation of team rules.
But even without the tenacious Tabb, Pearl will have the most experienced team in the SEC with starters Smith, Wayne Chism, JP Prince and Bobby Maze all together for one more winter.
This isn't to say Kentucky won't or shouldn't be the favorite. Coach John Calipari's Wildcats are loaded with NBA prospects, at least three of them lottery picks.
But Smith, Chism and sophomore wing Scotty Hopson should all enjoy long and solid NBA careers. Prince -- if he can ever stay healthy -- could also work his way into that mix.
Given that fact, plus UK's inexperience with Calipari's dribble-drive offense, the Vols may well become not only the beast of the SEC East, but also a legitimate Final Four contender.
And if that happens, his teammates and coaches are already pointing to Smith as the chief reason.
"Tyler's leadership has really picked up," said junior post player Brian Williams. "He's more vocal. He makes sure everybody is on the same page. We were on a lot of different pages last year. Some people weren't even reading the same book. I don't think the defense book even got opened. But he's got us all on the same page this year."
Said Hopson, who's gained 18 chiseled pounds: "Tyler's work ethic is like no other."
Added Pearl, "Going to the NBA workouts were very valuable to Tyler. He's worked especially hard to improve his ball-handling, perimeter shooting and defense. I really believe Tyler, Wayne and JP have a chance to be regarded as three of Tennessee's all-time greats because of what they can accomplish as a team."
No Tennessee team has ever gone further than the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16, but Williams doesn't think Smith turned his back on a possible second-round NBA draft selection to go but one round beyond that.
"Tyler came back," he said, "to try and help us win a national championship."
It's never that simple, of course. Smith said the NBA workouts taught him he needed to improve more than his basketball skills.
"They taught me how to be more professional, how to dress, how to be on time, if not early," he said. "If they're going to invest $1 million in you, they have a right to expect that."
But that doesn't mean his heart ever wanted to leave early.
"This is home," Tyler said as he tugged on the "Livestrong" yellow plastic bracelet his father gave him before he passed away. "Wherever I go in the NBA, I'm still going to wear the orange. I'm really going to miss the football Saturdays, tailgating, Rocky Top."
Someone asked him how close he came to leaving, to rolling the dice and earning a living somewhere, if not the NBA.
"I saw how close I was," he said, "but I'm still far away."
Said Chism, casting an admiring glance his classmate's way, "He's a grown man. Tyler is a great person. He's a good person on the floor, off the floor. We're just glad he came back."