KNOXVILLE, TENN. (AP) - There's been plenty of talk about whether Tennessee forward Tobias Harris will soon go to the NBA. As far as coach Bruce Pearl is concerned, the freshman is already a professional.
Harris is serious while his teammates like to ham it up on the court; he opts to get extra shots in while the rest of the Volunteers are goofing off. That businesslike approach has helped him become one of the top freshmen in the country.
"He's played terrifically. He has played great down the stretch," Pearl said. "He's a professional at a very, very young age because of his discipline, his toughness, his mental focus, his preparation."
On Friday, the 6-foot-8 Harris will be expected to adjust his defensive role for the No. 9 seed Vols (19-14) as they face eighth-seeded Michigan (20-13) in NCAA West Regional play. After a season of focusing largely on defending the post, Harris will defend 6-4 guard Zack Novack.
And he's got to do that without letting Novack or any of the Wolverines' other young and undersized but talented players give him too much trouble on the other end of the court.
"It's different," Harris said, "but we've got some good coverages for him and for their whole team. He's pretty undersized, but he can shoot the ball well so it will be a good matchup for me. I know they're going to have a way in the post just to try to double down and strip and rip down there. I'm going to have to find ways just to be crafty and be a playmaker."
He's had plenty of success as a playmaker lately. During Tennessee's two Southeastern Conference tournament games, Harris averaged a league-leading 22.5 points _ neither Arkansas nor Florida having an answer for how to stop him.
The Dix Hills, N.Y., native is the highest-profile recruit to sign at Tennessee. Harris has studied the game for his entire life as the son of former NBA agent Torrel Harris Sr., who worked with Hall of Fame guard George Gervin.
After being selected a McDonald's High School All-American, Harris turned down offers from Kentucky, Syracuse, West Virginia, Georgia Tech and Maryland among other schools.
He's lived up to the expectations, averaging 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds and getting eight double-doubles this season _ no other player has had more during Pearl's six years at Tennessee. He's developed an outside shot, shown he can fill in at the center position and proven to be as much of a point forward as a power forward.
"He's a great player, and I think everyone sees that," Tennessee point guard Trae Golden said. "He's taking advantage of his opportunities. He's playing like an All-American. He's leading us on and off the court."
It probably doesn't hurt that he gets in an early morning workout on his own time nearly every day or spends what little free time he gets resting rather than partying or goofing off like so many other college students.
"He came in solid, but I think you've seen a lot of growth," Pearl said. "You've seen a lot of growth defensively, you've seen some growth in his ability to shoot the basketball. He has just gotten better, he's gotten bigger, he's gotten quicker, faster, more versatile and he's absolutely been a delight to coach. He's an amazing competitor."
And while the scoring of junior guard Scotty Hopson and rebounding of senior center Brian Williams has been inconsistent this season, Harris' play hardly ever took a night off, except for a few games in late January and early February that he played with a sore ankle.
He's happy with his freshman season so far, even though the Vols haven't lived up to expectations. Tennessee opened the season on a seven-game winning streak, winning the preseason NIT and beating Pittsburgh in the process, but stumbled through SEC play and finished fifth in the league's East Division.
"I think one of the main things I've gotten out of this college experience was just staying positive while going through adversity, just staying the person I am and not changing and doing what I have to do while trying to work things out," Harris said.
That attitude should serve him well if he does opt to enter the NBA draft after this season. Like so many players, it's a dream of his but not one that he's thinking about too much right now.
"It's not really on my mind because I'm here to win games, and that's what I'm focused on," Harris said. "When people bring it up, I kind of just shy away from it and tell them I'm just focusing on the season, which I am. After this season's over, that's definitely something that's going to be worth thinking about."