Even without Lofton, don't bet against Pearl

The topic at a Monday media luncheon was whether or not Tennessee could win a basketball game without the high-scoring but injured Chris Lofton, who figures to miss at least two contests. The prevailing opinion: No. I wasn't among the majority.

Yes, I know Tennessee is losing 22 points per game, the college game's best outside shooter, the go-to guy, Mr. Clutch.

But I've seen Bruce Pearl coach enough games to know he can pull a rabbit out of hat, even a dented hat.

He's done it before. He will do it again. Will he do it with Lofton on the sideline? Certainly that's debatable.

But I think the Vols can beat Ole Miss without Lofton or Georgia without Lofton. Those are two of UT's next three games.

Pearl isn't ready to wave a white towel despite not having the early favorite for SEC Player of the Year.

``When have you not seen them (players) respond?'' Pearl said.

Answer: Not very often.

After losing to Butler and North Carolina in New York, the Vols responded by beating Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas.

After a heart-breaking loss at Vanderbilt, they responded with a near-win at Ohio State on CBS.

About the only time this team hasn't responded was in a loss at Auburn.

But winning on the road in the SEC isn't easy. The SEC West is 0-14 in conference road games.

So, odds are against Tennessee beating Ole Miss in Oxford, especially as they try to adjust to losing Lofton.

But did you think Tennessee would beat Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas? Did you think the Vols would win the SEC East last year? Did you think Tennessee would secure a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament a year ago?

No. Pearl will make adjustments sans Lofton and play up the underdog role to his team. He will have them believing they can spring the upset.

But that will require special performances from several players like JuJuan Smith, Ramar Smith and Wayne Chism. You know what you'll get from Dane Bradshaw. You're still not sure from game to game what you'll get out of the Smiths and Chism.

Chism showed promise with a 6-for-8 shooting game against South Carolina, but the Gamecocks are a thin, weak inside team. Ole Miss is not.

Center Dwayne Curtis is 6-8 and 280. Kenny Williams and Jeremy Parnell are 6-8 and 240. Three other players stand at least 6-8 and weigh at least 225. And Greg Hardy is 6-5 and 240.

Tennessee has one scholarship player who weighs at least 240 – Chism. Giving away such height and bulk, you might think the Vols will be dominated on the boards. But UT leads the SEC in offensive rebounding.

``Hustle and effort,'' Pearl explained. Then, he added: ``A cynical coach would say we shoot so poorly, we have more opportunities.''

Shot selection will be more important than ever without Lofton. UT can't afford wasted opportunities. They also must shoot well from beyond the arc.

Rebounding and ball handling will also be keys. So will the Vols' press, which has not been effective over the last few weeks.

One of the press's deficiencies is playing against three-guard teams, of which Ole Miss is one. Some of it appears to be teams figuring out how to beat the press, and when they do, getting easy baskets on the other end.

Pearl might decide to push tempo against a bigger, slower Rebel team. But that's always a dangerous proposition on the road.

Without a Lofton, it's probably a gamble worth taking.

Pearl said he might go inside more without Lofton, but that's not a ``fix-all.'' He knows both Smiths must step up. And Chism and Duke Crews must play well. And Jordan Howell might have to hit a key basket or two.

Without Lofton, Pearl was asked which Vol would get the call at crunch time.

``I hope we get a crunch-time possession to win,'' Pearl said, ``and if we do, I'll put it in the hands of the guy with the hot hand.''

Knowing Pearl, he'll keep his team in at least one game without Lofton.

And here's betting he wins one.

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