Kentucky Long Rifle Replaces UT's Winchester

Swapping a guard with two years of college experience, who came to Tennessee a top 50 prospect nationally in 2002, for a high school senior who is a top 150 prospect nationally in 2004 sounds like a bum deal, but you can't help feeling that the Vols Buzz Peterson somehow got the better of this eleventh-hour exchange.

And after losing four guards — Harris Walker, Terrance Woods, Jon Higgins and John Winchester — in three seasons on the Hill it's hard to debate that Peterson was due a break in the personnel department even if the merits of the Winchester-for-Chris-Lofton exchange are anything but obvious.

Winchester came to Tennessee with a sound reputation as a scorer and athlete but in two seasons with ample opportunity he rarely exhibited the consistency or diversity of a top drawer guard. In short: his ball handling skills were suspect, his shooting erratic and his defense often nonexistent. The 6-foot-3 Winchester did have the requisite size, quickness and leaping ability of a backcourt ace but lacked the intensity and instincts needed to lock down a starting role.

Lofton can't match Winchester's athleticism but he does possess the perimeter skills and shooting range the Vols sorely need at the two guard, and haven't had since Jon Higgins was declared academically ineligible to play late in the 2002-2003 campaign. He can't fill in at the point like Higgins was able to do but he has superior shooting skills and Dane Bradshaw should provide adequate relief for lead guard C.J. Watson and give Peterson a flexible three-guard rotation.

Lofton's presence on the hardwood will also allow Peterson to use leading scorer Scooter McFadgon at small forward, giving the Vols a couple of viable options from the perimeter in the half-court game. That would free Watson to breakdown the defense instead of shoot over it. Lofton also provides a counter to omnipresent opponent zones that sought to shut down the post and force UT to survive from the outside. Without the firepower to blast holes in the zone, Tennessee frequently crashed and burned under a hail of miscues and misfires.

Of course, the 6-foot-2 Lofton, of Mason County High School in Kentucky, has to prove he can step up to the plate in a league where he has many doubters. Chief among ye of little faith are the Kentucky Wildcats, who didn't offer the Mr. Kentucky Basketball winner a scholarship. Neither did Florida, Georgia and Arkansas although all three showed genuine interest.

Tennessee didn't enter the picture for Lofton until Winchester's decision to transfer became official. By that time, Lofton had crowned his high school career with a stellar senior season that included a 26.8 scoring average and a return trip to the Class 3A title game. He finished his career at Mason County with a school record 2,763 points and hit a remarkable 46 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Of added value to Tennessee, is the fact Lofton is an overachiever with something to prove, particularly to UT's arch rival UK, replacing an underachiever, in Winchester, who didn't show any signs of improvement in two seasons at Tennessee. That difference alone should help team chemistry.

The questions about Lofton's quickness on defense are extremely relevant to a Tennessee team that relies on the man-to-man most of the time. But Winchester's premier mobility rarely manifested itself on defense and he was ineffective creating his own shot. Since at least half of good defense is desire and anticipation, Lofton may prove to be more than adequate on that end of the court. True, he'll require his share of screens to get off his shot but so did Steve Alford, and all he did was lead Indiana to the 1987 NCAA championship.

Bottom line: There is always a place in basketball for a pure shooter, particularly in an era in which the 3-point shot places a sky high premium on shooting range. Tennessee has had plenty of great athletes that couldn't play basketball and there's a long list of shooters — i.e. Bill Justus, John Snow, Jimmy England, Mike Edwards, Mike Jackson and Michael Brooks — who starred for the Vols despite a glaring lack of quickness.

Looks like Buzz finally got a shooter's bounce.

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