Life without Lofton

Tonight's 8 p.m. EST tipoff with Ole Miss at Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford seems to be shaping up as perhaps the ultimate good news/bad news scenario for Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl. Consider:

Good news: Ole Miss has trouble matching up man-to-man, so the Rebels play a lot of zone defense.

Bad news: The Vols' zone-buster, Chris Lofton, is sidelined by a sprained ankle.

Good news: Tennessee has an assortment of plays designed to attack a zone defense.

Bad news: Most of those plays are built around Lofton.

Pearl says he's pretty sure the Rebels "wouldn't play very much zone" if Lofton were available. Since he's out, though, the Vol coach expects to see a healthy dose of zone.

"We'll have to find ways to score against the zone without Chris," Pearl said, wryly noting that "A lot of things (in UT's zone package) are designed to get him the ball."

Rather than insert a reserve guard – Jordan Howell of Josh Tabb – into Lofton's starting spot, Pearl's practice lineup this week consisted of 6-9 freshman Wayne Chism and 6-7 freshman Duke Crews on the inside, with 6-4 Dane Bradshaw moving from power forward to small forward. JaJuan Smith has switched from small forward to Lofton's wing spot, with freshman Ramar Smith remaining at the point position.

Minus Lofton's long-range bombing, Tennessee may have to score more points in transition tonight. Forcing a fast tempo on an opponent's home floor can be risky, however.

"Two factors," Pearl says. "One, if you choose to do that on the road, you might get run out (of the gym). Andy Kennedy says this will be the slowest Ole Miss team he ever coaches. He's very much committed to up-tempo basketball.

"Given that – and knowing what (Todd) Abernethy and (Clarence) Sanders and (Bam) Doyne are capable of in transition – to say 'We're going to go in and make a track meet out of it,' I don't know that we can do that."

Still, teams must play to their strengths, and Tennessee is a more effective team in a transition game than it is in a halfcourt game.

"We've got to run and we've got to press," Pearl concedes, "but we'll need to mix it up. That's because we're playing on the road, and they (Rebels) do a good job in transition. But we're smaller and perhaps more mobile, so that (quick tempo) is something we'll try to test."

Fortunately for Tennessee, the loss of Lofton to injury coincided with the return of Howell from injury. Although he hadn't played in a month due to a broken finger, Howell gave the Vols 16 solid minutes last Saturday against South Carolina.

"Getting Jordan Howell back is good timing," Pearl says. "Now we've got to see Josh Tabb do more than just show some signs of being a good defensive player."

In addition, the Vols need to see strong play from junior guard JaJuan Smith. After making just 4 of 20 shots in Games 16 and 17 combined, he bounced back to make 14 of 27 in Games 18 and 19 combined. When Smith is shooting well, he tends to rebound and play defense better.

"It's important to have JaJuan playing well," Pearl says. "He cares, and he's always been a good defensive player. We just want him to be a more consistent offensive player."

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