Bottom line: After losing three of four games while Chris Lofton was sidelined by his sprained ankle, the Vols have won three in a row since he returned to action. Clearly, a limited Lofton is better than no Lofton at all.
"It's getting better," he said of his injured ankle. "It's still not there but I've got to play through it."
Asked what area of his game is benefiting most from the improvement in his ankle, Lofton replied: "I feel like I got to the hole a little better (against Kentucky). I didn't finish but I got there more in the second half."
After scoring 8 points against LSU in his first game back from the injury, Lofton doubled that output to 16 against Vanderbilt in his next outing. The 23-point effort against UK actually surpassed his season's average of 20.6.
While Lofton's offense is returning to form, his tender ankle continues to hinder hm a bit defensively. Kentucky's guards beat him off the dribble several times Tuesday night, especially in the first half.
"I was a little worried at first, especially when they started taking advantage of me early in the game – going right around me and scoring," he recalled. "That was real frustrating for me. I just had to keep my head up and try to do better the second half."
On a positive note, Lofton's long-range bombing appears to be as good as ever. He drained back-to-back 3-pointers during a 9-0 spurt that turned a 27-26 lead into a 36-26 lead late in the first half against Kentucky. He then buried another trey early in the second half, helping the Vols extend a 40-30 halftime lead to 51-35.
"I got some open looks in transition," he said. "That helped get our team going, and we fed off that."
Even when he isn't scoring, Lofton impacts a game merely by being on the floor. His shooting range forces an opponent to extend its defense, and this creates more operating room for Tennessee's other players.
"Chris is the focal point of every scout," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "We were able to put the ball in his hands (against the Wildcats) and take advantage of their rotations."
Probably Lofton's greatest impact on Tennessee is at crunch time. His brilliance as a free-throw shooter makes him invaluable when an opponent is forced to foul in the final minutes.
Against Kentucky, Lofton took the inbounds pass three consecutive times in the final 30 seconds and converted five of six foul shots to seal the outcome.
"In those situations you need (someone) to be strong with the ball and get fouled," Pearl said. "And Chris is more likely to get the whistle. If you put the ball in his hands, he's strong with the ball … he's an All-American. If he gets hit, the whistle's going to blow and he's going to make free throws."
Although Lofton is a bona fide superstar, his humble nature keeps teammates from feeling jealousy or resentment. They know he played through some discomfort Tuesday night. They know his health is critical to UT's hopes of finishing the season with a flourish.
"It's real big," guard JaJuan Smith said. "He's not 100 percent but he came out and fought real hard and gave us all he had, led us to victory."