JaJuan's the X factor

Tennessee wing Chris Lofton is like Old Faithful. You can count on him for 20 points each game. Meanwhile, backcourt mate JaJuan Smith is like old fireworks. You never know if he'll go off or not.

Lofton's production is remarkably steady. Even in a 4-of-16 shooting performance Sunday against Virginia, he reached the 20-point mark by nailing three 3-pointers and nine of 10 foul shots. As head coach Bruce Pearl noted after Monday's practice: "He's either going to be good or great."

Conversely, JaJuan Smith tends to be awesome or awful. When he's awesome, Tennessee can beat just about anybody in college hoops. When he's awful, Tennessee can lose to just about anybody.

"When JaJuan is playing great," Pearl conceded, "we're hard to beat."

Consider when Smith plays well:

- He had 14 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 6 steals in a 79-77 defeat of No. 15 Oklahoma State.

- He had 19 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in a 111-105 defeat of Texas.

- He had 11 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, a steal and a blocked shot in an 84-57 defeat of No. 23 Vanderbilt.

- He had 24 points, 6 rebounds and 4 steals in a 121-86 NCAA Tournament blowout of Long Beach State.

- He had 16 points (13 in the second half), 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals in a 77-74 NCAA Tournament defeat of Virginia.

Now consider when Smith plays poorly:

- He went 3 of 10 from the floor with 5 turnovers in a 56-44 loss to Butler.

- He went 2 of 11 from the floor (2 of 8 from 3-point range) in an 82-81 loss at Vanderbilt.

- He went 2 of 9 from the floor (1 of 8 from 3) in a 68-66 loss at Ohio State.

- He went 4 of 15 from the floor (2 of 9 from 3) in a 94-78 loss at Florida.

- He went 3 of 11 from the floor (0 of 7 from 3) with 3 turnovers in a 76-67 loss to LSU.

Bottom line: When Smith plays well, Tennessee tends to win, regardless of the opponent. When Smith plays poorly, Tennessee tends to lose, regardless of the opponent.

"JaJuan might be our most valuable player," Pearl said, "from the standpoint of all the things he does – rebounding, defense and hustle plays."

Certainly, Smith is a valuable commodity when he exercises good judgment. When he doesn't, he's a real liability. Thanks to electrifying skills, he is the Vol most likely to bring the crowd to its feet ... and the Vol most likely to make an unforced turnover or launch an air ball.

Pearl said he can count on one hand the number of times Smith has played impatiently this season, whereas he needed both hands to do so last season. That's progress.

"I appreciate his maturity and his patience," the coach added. "While he's still an aggressive player, he's letting opportunities come his way, rather than forcing things."

With Smith playing patiently and under control, fifth-seeded Tennessee has won its way into the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. He must play well Thursday night, however, for the Vols to have much chance of beating No. 1 seed Ohio State.

"When JaJuan's at his best, offensively and defensively, we're hard to beat," Lofton said. "He brings so much to the table – with his on-the-ball defense and his ability to knock down open shots – that's when our team is most successful."

On those occasions when Lofton and Smith are clicking simultaneously, Tennessee is virtually unbeatable. Since Lofton plays up to his All-America billing most of the time, that makes Smith the X factor each time the Vols take the floor.

"JaJuan is a 2 guard on a team with one of the best 2 guards in the country," Pearl said. "But he's found a way to play with Chris – on the other wing – and do some other things.

"For that, he deserves a great deal of credit."

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