Lofton is back on his game

Tennessee basketball player Chris Lofton should concentrate on driving when he's behind the wheel of his car. The rest of the time he should concentrate on scoring, whether it's on a nifty drive or a long-range bomb from the outside.

That's the lesson the 6-2 sharpshooter learned thus far in the 2006-07 season. Because Lofton is a 90-percent foul shooter, head coach Bruce Pearl suggested during the offseason that he take the ball to the basket more this year in order to draw some fouls and get more free-throw opportunities.

Lofton took the suggestion a bit too literally. The soft-spoken junior from Maysville, Ky., became so obsessed with driving to the basket that he stopped doing what he does best – bomb from long range. After attempting just four shots in the first exhibition game and nine more in the second, he shot just six times in the regular-season opener vs. Middle Tennessee.

When a preseason All-American scores six points in his team's opening game, eyebrows are raised. So are questions: "What's wrong with Chris Lofton?" everyone asked.

Nothing, it turned out, that a little shift in emphasis wouldn't fix. Lofton fired up 16 shots (10 of them 3-pointers) in Game 2 against Fordham and finished with 30 points. He fired up 16 more shots (11 from beyond the arc) in Game 3 against UNC-Wilmington and tallied 17 points. He unloaded just 11 shots (six from 3-point range) in a Game 4 blowout of Coppin State but still scored 19 points.

Clearly, Lofton has learned to take the drive when it's there without sacrificing opportunities to showcase his ultra-sweet jump shot.

"I think I was forcing a little," he said. "I took it to heart at the beginning. Now I'm just relaxing and doing what I do best – that's knocking down open shots."

Although he admits being a little too concerned with scoring off the bounce in earlier games, Lofton said, "I've moved past that. Now I'm just knocking down open shots when I can."

He knocked down several key shots in the defeat of Coppin State, scoring five of his points in a 10-0 spurt that widened the lead from 38-30 to 48-30 just before halftime.

A man of few words, he explained his clutch play succinctly: "I was open, my teammates found me, and I was knocking down shots. That's our game plan."

Like his teammates, Lofton can hardly wait to play Wednesday and Friday in the NIT Tip-Off tournament in New York City.

"I've never been there," he said, "and I'm looking forward to it, especially to play at Madison Square Garden."

Although the Vols had to beat Fordham and UNC-Wilmington to earn their trip to the Big Apple, Lofton cautions that the job is only half finished.

"It's important to get there, but just getting there is not the main thing," he said. "We want to win; that's our main focus right now"

Since the competition includes perennial Final Four contenders North Carolina and Gonzaga, the odds of the youthful Vols claiming the NIT championship appear somewhat staggering. Still, Lofton believes Tennessee can win it all.

"I think so," he said. "If we listen to the game plan, listen to what Coach has to say and execute, I think we can win it."

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