JaJuan's on fire

When Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury put in his gameplan for Sunday's SEC opener against Tennessee, containing All-America guard Chris Lofton had to be Job 1. Containing Lofton's backcourt mate might be Job 1-A, though.

Opponents who focus too much attention on Lofton risk being burned by fellow guard JaJuan Smith. The 6-2 junior posted a career-high 23 points in Game 13 vs. Tennessee Tech, then matched that with 23 more in Game 14 vs. East Tennessee State. He'd like to make it three straight Sunday against the Bulldogs.

"I think I'm playing at the top of my level right now going into SEC play," Smith said, "and I'm going to try and keep it going."

Smith has never lacked confidence. Now that he has earned the confidence of head coach Bruce Pearl, however, he has become a more poised and effective player.

"Coach has got faith in me. He's telling me to shoot the ball, so I'm out here getting extra shots (in practice)," Smith said. "Then, when I shoot the ball in games, it won't be new for me and I'll feel comfortable shooting."

Since a 7-point effort against Memphis on Dec. 6, Smith has put together a string of five productive outings – 21 points vs. Western Kentucky, 14 vs. Oklahoma State, 19 against Texas, then 23 each against Tennessee Tech and ETSU.

Asked if opponents are more aware of him now, Smith smiled.

"I hope so," he said. "When I'm coming down the floor I hear coaches saying, 'Don't leave him. He's a shooter.'"

Tennessee (12-2) enters Sunday's game riding an eight-game winning streak. That gives the 19th-ranked Vols a bit of momentum heading into conference play.

"Oh, man, we're going to go in with a lot of confidence," Smith said. "This little (eight-game) stretch right here opened it up for us, and now we're going to try to keep this stretch going."

To keep it going, of course, the Vols need to beat Mississippi State. They trounced a freshman-dominated Bulldog team 88-65 last year in Starkville.

"I think it's going to take the same effort Sunday we gave down there," Smith said, "and I think we'll come with it."

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