Will Vols Land Bluegrass Bomber?

Under normal circumstances, Tennessee wouldn't pass on Kentucky's high school player of the year, but under normal circumstances a Mr. Kentucky Basketball wouldn't be interested in signing with the Volunteers.

In fact, the last time it happened was 1989 when Allan Houston won the prestigious award and Tennessee signed him after hiring his father, Wade, as head coach. Even that took a release from Louisville's Denny Crum as Houston signed with the Cardinals before Wade took the UT post vacated by Don DeVoe.

Of course, under normal circumstances, a Mr. Kentucky Basketball would at least have an offer from one of the Blue Grass State's two blue blood basketball programs, but the UK Wildcats didn't offer Mason County High School guard Chris Lofton while Louisville only invited him to walk on.

That left the shooting guard to search for another place to ply his trade as the recruiting process turned into an epic odyssey of visits and cancellations, of offers rejected and offers retracted. There has been interest from Florida, Notre Dame and Cincinnati and a host of mid major schools are hoping he's available. The UC Bearcats apparently made a conditional offer, but have since signed another guard. He has taken official visits to Arkansas State, Dayton and Valparaiso. He canceled a scheduled visit to Arkansas this weekend after the Razorbacks signed a guard from Atlanta.

In three years under Peterson, the Vols have wrapped up their recruiting during the November signing period with the exception of the first year when UT signed JC shooting guard Thaddeus Holden. But after losing both November signees (Jackie Butler and Damien Harris) and two other Vols (Boomer Herndon and John Winchester) who decided to transfer, Peterson found himself in the market for immediate help.

Those are the peculiar set of circumstances that it took to pull Lofton in the Big Orange orbit and sets the stage for his official visit to Knoxville next Monday and Tuesday. The Vols assume the role of favorite for Lofton's services — if they decide to extend the offer.

And why wouldn't they you might ask? After all Lofton's achievements are certainly worthy of a Mr. Kentucky Basketball, averaging 26.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3.1 steals per game as a senior and scoring 2,763 points during his career at powerhouse Mason County in Northern Kentucky. He connected on a remarkable 46.2 percent from 3-point range over his career, hitting 353 of 764 attempts.

He led Mason County to a state championship as a junior and the state finals this year. In the 2003 title tilt, Lofton made 11 of 17 from the field, including 9 of 12 three-pointers, for 39 points and he added five rebounds. The nine three-pointers tied former Clay County star Richie Farmer's record for most in a tournament game. Lofton scored 252 points in 10 state-tournament games — the third-best in state history, behind only Farmer (317 points) and J.R. VanHoose of Paintsville (272 points).

In the Royals' first-round win against Wayne County this year, Lofton had 34 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and one steal. The performance was witnessed by Wildcat head coach Tubby Smith, but after the game when Lofton was asked if he knew UK's coach was in attendance, he tersely replied: "I'm just playing for Mason County."

That response underscores Lofton's frustration with not attracting an offer from the Wildcats, who signed three guards in their 2004 recruiting class. But it doesn't explain why several big-time teams have backed off from signing him. Reported to be between 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-3, Lofton is a pure shooter who ranks No. 136 in The Insiders top 150 prospects nationally.

However basketball analyst Bob Gibbons regards Lofton as a one-dimensional player who doesn't handle the ball well enough to play the point at the next level and who will have a difficult time creating his own shot. His lack of exceptional quickness might also make Lofton a liability in UT's favored man-to-man defense.

However, Lofton does have a feel for the game that can't be taught and that is in short supply at UT. He's a solid student with a 3.4 grade point average and has demonstrated a capacity to perform well under pressure. He was named state tournament MVP in 2003 and received the tournament's sportsmanship award in 2004.

''He's the best player in the state with a big exclamation point,'' Mason County coach Kelly Wells said after the 2003 final. ''He's been our leader all year long. Sometimes I told him he was a little too unselfish, but in the state championship game he took charge."

Lofton has learned he can't rely on his golden shooting touch alone and has worked hard to improve his overall game.

''The biggest thing for Chris was that last year against Paducah Tilghman (in the state tournament), they forced him to do something other than catch and shoot it,'' Wells said. ''He's a tremendous shooter, but he challenged himself to get better in every other phase of the game."

Although he had another amazing run in this year's tournament and led Mason County to a 33-3 record, he wasn't satisfied with his play.

"I think I could have played better, but I did average 28 points for the tournament," Lofton said. "I could have been more aggressive sometimes and played a little better. It was a great season, however. I became the schools all time scoring leader."

Although Lofton is not known for his athleticism, he was also an outstanding football player for the Royals. Five months after he had his MVP winning 39-point performance in the basketball championship, he caught six passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns (32, 79 yards) in the Royals' season-opener against defending Class 2A champion Breathitt County in the Recreation Bowl.

"The great thing about Chris is there's no downside," Wells said. "He's a Mr. Basketball. Great grades. Super teammate. Great leader. Somebody will get a great player."

The question is: would Lofton be a great player for the Volunteers? He doesn't fit the cat-quick profile UT normally looks for in its guards and he might not be the type of player that would flourish in an up-tempo style. But Tennessee needs help at the perimeter and a guard that could light it up from long distance would allow point guard C.J. Watson to concentrate more on distribution.

Even if Lofton never starts a game, he could have a productive four-year career coming off the bench to provide a counter punch against the plethora of zone defenses opponents routinely throw at the Vols.

If you think about it, a shooting guard listed at 6-3 who is closer to 6-1 and considered a step slow by SEC standards sounds a lot like Michael Brooks, who came to Tennessee from Memphis in 1981 and thrived. He finished as Tennessee's No. 9 leading scorer all-time and averaged 17 points per game as a senior after posting averages of 14.1 as a junior and 11.6 as a sophomore. Brooks shot 50 percent from the field, 84.7 from the foul line and scored 1600 career points, despite playing before the 3-point shot was instituted by the NCAA. It was not unusual for Brooks to shoot and score from 25 feet away.

Considering some of the risks Tennessee has taken with prospects in recent years, adding Lofton during the late signing period almost seems practical by comparison.

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