State of the Hogs: Tennessee

There were some soft protests Thursday when assistant coach Dan Hipsher assigned positions for the scout team offense as Arkansas began preparations for Saturday's basketball game at Tennessee. Everyone wanted to be Tennessee sharpshooter Chris Lofton.

There were some soft protests Thursday when assistant coach Dan Hipsher assigned positions for the scout team offense as Arkansas began preparations for Saturday's basketball game at Tennessee. Everyone wanted to be Tennessee sharpshooter Chris Lofton.

"I'll be Lofton," insisted Vincent Hunter, the Hogs' reserve 6-10 sophomore forward.

"I guess I'm C. J. Watson," said Gary Ervin, who did in fact play the role of the UT point guard for the Hogs in practice.

Ervin did take the role of the Tennessee point guard. Lofton was impersonated by Preston Cranford, perhaps the Hogs' best pure shooter.

Stan Heath, the Hogs' head coach, smiled as he watched his backups roll through the Tennessee stuff before practice. He knows there isn't anyone likely to give them an accurate look of Lofton, no doubt the SEC's best player right now.

The charge for the Hogs on Saturday is to cover Lofton, but not too closely. There is a delicate balance between tight defense and sending him to the foul line when it comes to Lofton.

You don't foul the sophomore shooting guard. He's 30 for 30 from the line in SEC games. He's pretty good from 3-point range, too. Lofton is 54 of 107 on threes (.505) in SEC games. That's better than he is from inside the 3-point line. He's just 25 of 50 on twos in SEC play.

"When I look at who deserves to be MVP, I usually lean to a player on the best team," Heath said. "(Lofton) would have to be the MVP right now."

There was plenty of discussion during Heath's media briefing Thursday on how the Hogs should cover Lofton. Perhaps the box-and-one the Hogs put on Alabama's Ronald Steele is in order. For sure, the Hogs aren't going to try zone against the Vols.

"You can't play zone," Heath said. "Lofton just really stretches you if you do that because he has great, great range. Some teams -- Vandy, Alabama and LSU -- were successful with some taller defenders."

Perhaps Hunter would qualify in that regard, but Heath wasn't giving away any secrets before practice other than to say his box-and-one -- unpracticed before the Alabama game -- would get some attention before the Tennessee game.

"We might have to throw a little of that in (today in practice)," Heath said. "Seriously, there isn't much you can do with a box-and-one as far as practice anyway. You use the same slides for the other four that you use in your other zone defenses. You tell the guys to be careful not to over extend and to watch the back side. That's about it."

Heath seemed just as concerned with Watson, the Vols' other guard and a true trigger man. Watson and Lofton rank second and third (behind the Hogs' Ronnie Brewer) in the SEC steal charts, each averaging 2.0 per game.

"You talk about defending Lofton in the halfcourt, but where he really hurts you is in transition," Heath said. "They get a steal and he's running to a spot and they do know how to find him. A three is like a layup for him in their transition game. You just have to avoid turnovers against them. That's where they hurt you, in transition with those two-on-ones and three-on-twos when they get a three."

Everyone raves about Lofton's foul shooting. Most know that he's perfect in SEC games and 45 of 48 (.938) on the season. Watson is right behind him from the line. He has nailed 115 of 131 (.878) on the season and 52 of 58 (.897) in SEC play.

"That's one of the best backcourts out there," Heath said. "They are highly skilled shooters and very good passers. They have a high basketball IQ, too.

"Lofton is really a great shooter. He makes shots with hands in his face at almost the same percentage as when he's open."

The Hogs seemed excited about their chances at Tennessee. Never mind that they've won only three SEC road games during the four years Heath has been the coach. They think they've got a shot at the Vols and know it will take more than a good night against Lofton.

"We are going there to win," Jonathon Modica said. "They have a great team. Lofton is a great player, but he's not all they've got. They wouldn't be ranked if he was the only player on the team. We have to stop a lot of guys Saturday.

"We have to keep some pressure on Lofton because he is a great shooter. But we'll have to do a lot of other things right, too."

Most give the Hogs no chance because of their lack of road victories, but they may be getting the Vols at the right time. They clinched the SEC East title with a rare victory at Florida on Wednesday night.

Hopefully, the Vols will still be soaring in the clouds when the Hogs get to Knoxville. The Hogs could use a little good fortune and a victory over Tennessee would go a long way to cement their position in the NCAA tournament.

"Huge, just huge, a feather in our cap," Heath said when asked what a Knoxville triumph would mean.

Unlikely, yes.

But it could happen. Maybe this is the game Chris Lofton misses some free throws. Maybe this is the time the Hogs get a key road victory. Some would say past history indicates it won't happen.

Personally, I like to think it's time some of those numbers turned around.

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