Vols limp into Fayetteville

Arkansas may have more fans, more size and more energy than Tennessee when the two teams tip it up at 1 EST today in Fayetteville. But the Razorbacks won't have any more toughness than the Volunteers.

Tennessee proved its toughness beyond question earlier this week against No. 25 Alabama. Consider:

Chris Lofton played 33 minutes with a sore ankle.

JaJuan Smith played 37 minutes with a pulled hamstring.

Ramar Smith played most of his 32 minutes with an injured knee.

Even with its entire starting backcourt limping, Tennessee managed to make enough baskets and stops down the stretch to nip the Tide 69-66 in overtime. One thing the Vols didn't make was excuses.

After going 6 o f 22 from the field, including 3 of 15 from 3-point range, Lofton declined to blame his ankle for the poor shooting performance.

"I can't blame it on nothing," he said. "I was just missing."

Head coach Bruce Pearl said he thought about calling fewer plays for Lofton but reconsidered, noting: "Do you ever NOT get the ball to (number) five?"

Tennessee's players followed the same logic.

"We've got a lot of confidence in Chris, so we keep giving him the ball," JaJuan Smith said. "He's going to miss a few but he makes ‘em when it counts. You've got to give him a lot of credit: He pulled us through."

JaJuan is probably in worse shape than Lofton these days. He pulled his hamstring Feb. 13 against Kentucky and has been hobbling ever since.

"I went up for a basket … and it was like something just bit me," he said. "The hamstring makes it real tough for me to (slide-step) to my left, so I try to force the opponent to the right."

Ramar Smith isn't exactly in peak health these days, either. He hurt his knee in the early stages of the Alabama game and went to the bench for several minutes.

"I bumped my knee, and I was hobbling through the whole game," he said. "I felt like I couldn't play hard defense like I thought I should, so I knew I had to come out."

The rigors of a college basketball season take a toll on a body, even a young body. Thus, the Vols seem determined to play through their various aches and pains.

"It's a long season," Ramar Smith said. "We've got to fight through it, get treatment and play hard."

Playing hard should be a given when the Vols (19-9 overall, 7-6 SEC) and Razorbacks (16-11, 5-8) collide this afternoon. A victory would get Tennessee to the 20-win mark and assure at least a .500 record in SEC play. That almost certainly would clinch an NCAA Tournament bid.


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