The Vols tamed "The Beast" last year thanks to the beauty of Chris Lofton's jump shot. A native of Maysville, Ky., he drained 11 of 18 field-goal tries – 7 of 10 from 3-point range – en route to 31 points in Tennessee's 75-67 win at Lexington.
Lofton missed this season's game at Lexington because of a sprained ankle and, not surprisingly, the Vols lost 76-57. He'll be available for the Knoxville rematch, however. And, coming off Saturday's 16-point effort against Vanderbilt, he looms as a key for tonight's 7 o'clock tipoff (coverage by ESPN) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Fellow Vol Jordan Howell had no idea how productive Lofton had been against the Commodores until he saw his teammate's stat line – 4 of 7 from the field, 2 of 4 from 3-point range, 6 of 6 from the foul line – in the final box score.
"That's what he does," Howell said. "He finds ways to get to the free-throw line, and he hit some 3s that put some daggers in 'em."
Although Tennessee lost three of the four games it played while Lofton's ankle kept him sidelined, the Vols may have benefited from his absence in a sense. Several players – notably Smith, Howell, Josh Tabb and Wayne Chism – took on beefier roles in an attempt to pick up the slack during the star player's absence.
"It gave us a lot of confidence that we could do it without him," said Smith, who has averaged 19 points per game since Lofton was hurt. "Since he came back we're trying to get back on the same page, pick up where we left off with him."
Even with Lofton rounding back into pre-injury form, beating Kentucky shapes up as a formidable task. The Vols recognize as much. He means no disrespect to the defending national champ Florida Gators but Smith correctly notes that the Cats cast a bigger shadow than the rest of the SEC.
"They're the top," he said. "They're the king. They're Kentucky."
They're The Beast.