JaJuan to the rescue

When All-America guard Chris Lofton went down, Tennessee teammate JaJuan Smith stepped up … and he has been stepping up ever since. Without him, the Vols wouldn't even be on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Lofton sprained his ankle two minutes into the second half of Tennessee's Jan. 20 game against South Carolina. Smith shouldered most of the scoring burden thereafter and finished the game with 21 points.

The 6-2 junior from nearby Decatur followed with 22 points vs. Ole Miss, a career-high 25 against Kentucky, 22 vs. Georgia and 16 vs. Florida. Lofton returned Tuesday night against LSU but managed just 8 points. No problem: Smith picked up the slack – again – by scoring a team-high 16 points to spark a 70-67 triumph.

During the six-game stretch covered by Lofton's injury, Smith has led UT's scoring five times. He averaged 20.2 points per game during that span, hitting 48.8 percent (41 of 84) from the floor and 38.5 percent (20 of 52) from beyond the arc.

Smith's ability to carry the offense in Lofton's absence was huge … and essential. Senior Dane Bradshaw is more of a setup man than scorer. The rest of the cast is freshmen who lack the poise to fill the go-to role.

"JaJuan Smith has been a really calming influence on the team," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "JaJuan has been so solid over the last couple of weeks…. He's just really stepping up his game."

Since Lofton's injury Smith has "stepped up" in every game but one. He struggled last Saturday, making just 4 of 15 field-goal tries in Tennessee's 94-78 loss at Florida.

Since LSU was taller than Tennessee at each of the five positions, Pearl figured the Vols' best chance to win was to set a frantic pace, offensively and defensively. No one does this better than Smith, whose quickness enables him to push the ball in transition offense and to steal the ball in fullcourt defense. Sure enough, he had a team-high 5 steals vs. LSU, helping the Vols force 20 Tiger turnovers.

"It was a little sloppy," Pearl conceded, "but do you want to go half-court with that team, have to guard them in half-court when they're bigger at every position? No, so we tried to make the game a little sloppy."

The game was so sloppy that LSU point guard Garrett Temple committed 5 turnovers before fouling out. The guy who forced most of those turnovers and fouls? JaJuan Smith.

"JaJuan, up top, did a great job putting ball pressure on Temple," Pearl said. "LSU had to enter their offense way out away from the basket. A lot of that had to do with JaJuan's ball pressure on Temple."

Life without Lofton has not been easy but the Vols have muddled through. They are 3-3 over the past six games, thanks to several players increasing their contributions while UT's star player has been sidelined or limited.

"We're real deep," Smith said, "and every night someone different steps up and makes a big play."

That may be true, but only one guy has stepped up in five of the past six games.

What follows is a recap of Smith's field-goal shooting, 3-point shooting and point production during the six games Lofton has been hobbled:

7-14 and 3-9, 21 points vs. South Carolina

8-15 and 4-10, 22 points vs. Ole Miss

9-17 and 5-11, 25 points vs. Kentucky

7-10 and 5-8, 22 points vs. Georgia

4-15 and 2-9, 16 points vs. Florida

6-13 and 1-5, 15 points vs. LSU

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