Lofton will play vs. LSU

Imagine you're a Major League Baseball player who is back in the lineup after a few weeks on the disabled list. Your first game is Tuesday night, and the opposing pitcher is Randy Johnson. Great timing, right?

Well, that's roughly what is happening to Tennessee basketball player Chris Lofton. After missing two-plus weeks of action due to a sprained ankle, he is scheduled to return to the court Tuesday night against LSU. Playing the part of Randy Johnson will be tenacious Tiger Garrett Temple, who covered Lofton like a wool blanket in their only previous meeting.

Temple, a rangy 6-6 guard, limited Lofton to 1-of-7 shooting – 0 of 4 from beyond the arc – and a career-low 2 points as the Tigers mauled the Vols 88-74 last Jan. 14 in Baton Rouge.

If Lofton couldn't shake Temple last year under ideal conditions, you have to wonder how effective he can be Tuesday night with a tender ankle, considerable rust and some inevitable doubts to overcome. Heck, Lofton had trouble shaking free from Vol walk-ons in recent workouts.

"I would like to have seen him be able to get open better," head coach Bruce Pearl conceded. "He shot it fine but his challenge is getting open. Garrett Temple probably covered him as well as anybody did all year last year. He (Temple) did the same thing to J.J. Redick. That was the difference in LSU getting past Duke ... the fact he could stop Redick one on one.

"I'm sure Chris will see a lot of Temple."

Pearl is unsure whether or not Lofton will start. The coach is quite sure Lofton won't resemble the player he was before the injury, however. He says athletes almost always struggle in their first game back from a layoff.

"The first game back is the toughest one – both for them, as far as their ability to play, and for the team," Pearl said. "We can't expect too much from Chris. If Chris isn't brilliant – like he was before he went out – we can't let that rattle us."

Even if Lofton struggles, he'll provide another body for Tennessee's playing rotation. The Vols have been utilizing just eight players during Lofton's absence, and that has taxed the starters by forcing them to play more minutes.

"How many minutes Chris is going to play, that's really to be determined," Pearl said. "But at least it'll give us a ninth guy, and we can perhaps get back to playing the style we like to play – with our up-tempo offense and pressure defense."

Lofton leads the SEC in scoring (21.5 points per game) and 3-pointers (3.68 per game), and ranks second in 3-point percentage (46.1). He is the clearcut go-to guy for the Vols, who lost three of the four games he missed. Still, his return is not a cure-all.

"Chris won't be the same for a while," Pearl said. "It's likely that the first game will be his most challenging, and we've got to respond to it. We want to put him in a position where he can help us but his return is not going to be THE difference."

Still, Pearl believes Lofton might have an impact on Tuesday night's game.

"Don't ever bet against Chris," the Vol coach said. "As well as he's capable of coming back, that's how well he'll play."

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