SEC Player of the Year

Tennessee has had just one SEC Player of the Year in the past 18 years (Ron Slay in 2003). The Vols haven't had a first-team All-American since Dale Ellis in 1982-83.

Chris Lofton has a chance to accomplish both.

Lofton, the Vols sharp-shooting guard, is the leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year. He is fourth in the SEC in scoring (17.6), third in 3-point shooting (46.5 percent), first in free-throw showing (92.9 percent) and fifth in steals (2.1 per game). Lofton hasn't missed a free throw in an SEC game (24 of 24).

He's also come up big in big games – with one exception. He scored 31 at Kentucky to match the best-ever by a UT player at Rupp Arena. He scored 33 to help bail the Vols out at Georgia. He had 29 points and a key steal in a win over No. 2 Florida. He had 21 against Texas. He even had 21 in the loss to Oklahoma State.

The exception: He had two points in a loss at LSU.

There has been no more valuable player to an SEC contender than Lofton.

Glenn Davis of LSU is averaging 17.8 points and an SEC-best 9.6 rebounds, but he's got a lot of front-court help from Tyrus Thomas, who leads the SEC in blocked shots and is second in rebounding, and freshman Tasmin Mitchell.

Ronnie Brewer of Arkansas leads the SEC in scoring (18.7 points per game) and steals. But his team is No. 66 in the latest RPI with a 127 strength of schedule.

Asked if he thinks Lofton is a prime candidate for SEC Player of the Year, Vols coach Bruce Pearl hedged a bit: ``The Player of the Year, in my mind, is the best player on the best team. We don't know who the best team will be.

``Chris might be the best player. That's still to be determined. I'm of the mindset you don't give it to the best player in your league – you give it to the best player on the best team.''

Pearl said the fact that Lofton has come up big in big games is a factor.

``Clearly, that makes a difference,'' Pearl said. ``It's a pretty good indication. The best players have to step up against the best teams.''

While it remains to be seen who will win the SEC, Tennessee is the highest ranked SEC team in the AP poll and by far the highest ranked in the latest RPI – No. 3. That puts Lofton in great shape to be named SEC Player of the Year – if he continues his pace and the Vols continue to win.

Lofton should also be considered for All-American honors. J.J. Redick of Duke, Adam Morrison of Gonzaga and Rodney Carney of Memphis will be first-team picks. Beyond that, Lofton belongs in the conversation.

Lofton has been on an incredible streak of late. He's hit 23 of his last 33 long-range attempts over the last three games, drawing comparisons to Redick, the NCAA record-holder for most made 3-pointers.

Comparing the first two seasons of Redick and Lofton – although Lofton still has at least seven games remaining – is intriguing. Redick averaged 15.3 points, shot 39.5 percent from beyond the arc and made 2.8 treys per game. Lofton is averaging 15.0 points, shooting 46.5 percent from long range and making 3.4 treys per game. Lofton is ahead in rebounds and blocks, Redick ahead in assists and steals.

Tennessee's next MVP is point guard C.J. Watson, who is averaging 15.3 points and leads the team in assists and steals.

Some would argue Dane Bradshaw is more valuable that Watson, but it's not even close. While I give Bradshaw credit for being a smart leader, for hustling, for playing well at power forward and for ranking second in rebounds and assists, he simply doesn't have the numbers to rank with Watson as a team MVP.

Bradshaw is averaging 7.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He went seven straight games without hitting a 3-pointer (an 0-for-11 skid) until making two against Auburn. He is now shooting 25.5 percent from 3-point range (Watson's making over 42 percent). And he's a liability at the line, making just 58.9 percent of his free throws (compared to Watson's 87 percent).

Does that sound like the second-most valuable player on a team?

NOTE: Tennessee has had seven SEC Player of the Year winners: Slay, Tony White (1987), Dale Ellis (1982-83), Bernard King (1975-77), Ernie Grunfeld (1977), Mike Edwards (1972) and Ron Widby (1967).

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