Lofton's injury made Vols better

The Tennessee Basketball Vols are 20-6 when All-America guard Chris Lofton plays this season and just 1-3 when he doesn't. At first glance, it appears that his four-game absence was a real negative.

In retrospect, however, it may have been a blessing in disguise. Minus their go-to player, the Vols had to find other ways to score. And, minus the scoring prowess he had prior to the injury, Chris Lofton had to find other ways to contribute when he rejoined the lineup.

Looking back, Vol head coach Bruce Pearl believes Lofton's absence had some positive repercussions.

"I think everybody else had to step up," he said.

No one stepped up more so than fellow guard JaJuan Smith, who averaged 21.2 points per game during Lofton's absence.

Several reserves managed to step up during that time, as well. Freshman Josh Tabb saw his minutes, and his productivity, increase dramatically. Jordan Howell emerged as more of an offensive weapon. Ryan Childress became more offensive-minded, as well.

As Pearl recalled: "One of the things we talked about with a lot of the guys on the bench was ‘Stop logging minutes. Don't be out there afraid to fail. You've got to make plays. You've got to make winning plays.'"

With Lofton sidelined, Tennessee's bench was so short that Pearl says he told Vol reserves to relax because "I'm not going to pull you. There's nothing else on the bench, so you don't need to feel threatened."

Lofton was nowhere near 100 percent healthy when he returned. He couldn't elevate as well on his jump shot and he couldn't cut as well on his drives to the basket. Still, opponents double-teamed him. So, with his scoring abilities limited, he stopped firing contested jump shots and began finding open teammates for uncontested shots.

"We do a lot of things offensively for Chris because they do a lot of things (defensively) to take Chris away," Pearl noted. "When they trap the ball screen and Chris is delivering great passes for beautiful dunks the other team loses confidence.

"They double Chris, and Chris is smart enough to realize, ‘Hey, if you double me, somebody's open.'"

As strange as it sounds, Tennessee may be a better team than it would have been if its star player hadn't missed those four games in late January and early February.

"When I went down, everybody stepped up," Lofton conceded. "Everybody had new roles, and it showed. Everybody's playing well right now and we're playing together as a team."

LOFTON LEFTOVERS: After hitting 91.7 percent of his free throws in 2005-06 – including 38 in a row at one stretch – Lofton is making just 81.2 percent this season. He shocked observers by sinking a mere 5 of 10 from the line Tuesday night against Florida.

All told, Tennessee missed seven of 16 free throws in the game's final 3:33. Asked for his impressions, Lofton replied: "It was frustrating but it was MY free throws, not the team's. Five of 10 … that's bad right there."

Asked if he could remember the last time he missed five free throws in a game, he flashed a pained grin, shook his head and said: "I don't know. It's hard to talk about."

Public announcer Jeff Jarnigan inadvertently began speaking during one of Lofton's late-game free throws. When the shot rimmed out, Pearl lobbied with the officials for a do-over. They refused. Lofton didn't know what had happened until after the game.

"Some people told me about it; I didn't hear it," he said. "I missed it (free throw) anyway, so it didn't matter."

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