Handling the hype

Being shunned by in-state powers Kentucky and Louisville was tough but Tennessee basketball player Chris Lofton handled it. Facing gadget defenses designed to stop him was tough but he handled that, too.

Now Chris Lofton faces a new challenge: Can the 6-2 junior from Maysville, Ky., handle the transition from unsung underdog to pre-season All-American?

Lofton starred for the Vols in 2004-05 but flew under the radar because the team finished 14-17. He starred again in 2005-06 but began garnering some attention because Tennessee went 22-8 and earned a No. 2 seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

Now that his junior season is fast approaching, Lofton suddenly finds himself dealing with a new-found celebrity status. Instead of a chip on his shoulder, he has lofty expectations to shoulder. Street & Smith tabbed him a first-team pre-season All-American and Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook pegged him for second-team recognition.

The obvious question: Can he handle the hype?

"I'm sure Chris will handle it," head coach Bruce Pearl said recently. "He has certainly handled the underdog role. He has certainly handled the role of people not thinking he was good enough and 'Let's prove them wrong.' He's handled that really well."

Blessed with a low-key manner and modest nature, Lofton is unlikely to let pre-season accolades go to his head. Still, the pressure to live up to those accolades could affect his play. Even his coach concedes as much.

"How is he going to handle it now that there are more expectations on him and he is a pre-season all-star? I don't know," Pearl said. "But I'm not going to bet against him because he's handled everything else."

Lofton clearly was motivated earlier in his career by the fact Kentucky and Louisville considered him too small and too slow to be worthy of a scholarship. Now that he no longer has proving himself as a motivation, you wonder how he'll respond.

"This is clearly new. This is uncharted territory for Chris, as far as being a pre-season somebody that's supposed to be something," Pearl conceded. "It's always been ‘Let me prove it to you.'"

While Lofton's name recognition has increased, his waistline has decreased. He lost 10 pounds during the off-season and gained a step of quickness. That should enable him to contribute more than 3-pointers to the Vol offense this season.

"His game has changed a lot," Pearl noted. "He's going by people quicker. He's going to get to the foul line a lot more. And, because he's lighter, he's moving better defensively."

Because Lofton will be driving to the basket more this season, his ball-handling skills will be tested more so than the past two years, when he was primarily a pull-up jump-shooter.

"The challenge will be: Once he puts the ball on the floor to create, what will his assist/turnover ratio look like?" Pearl said. "He's going to try and do a little more off the bounce, so therein lies a challenge as far as him making plays."

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