Clearly, an amazing transformation has taken place in Big Orange hoops since Bruce Pearl and his staff arrived on the scene in the spring of 2005.
"It's crazy," senior guard Chris Lofton said recently. "I remember coming in my freshman year when nobody was in the crowd and (then) my sophomore year it was sold out. My junior year it just kept getting better."
Tennessee's freshmen and sophomores have seen the program at its recent peak. Lofton, along with senior classmates JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell, can remember a day when the Vols could hardly win an intra-squad game.
"Everybody's happy about winning," Lofton recalled, "but me, Jordan and JaJuan were here when it was down ... when it was bad Tennessee basketball."
Lofton, recently named to the 2007-08 John R. Wooden Award watch list, led the SEC in scoring at 20.8 points per game last season. Smith chipped in 15.2. With the addition of Iowa transfer Tyler Smith and Arizona transfer J.P. Prince, Lofton won't have to shoulder nearly so much of the scoring burden as he did a year ago.
"I guess you could say that," he said. "We've got a talented group of guys and everybody can score. They've just got to pick their spots. Whatever the team needs me to do, I'm going to try do to it – whether it's get the assist or make the shot."
Lofton worked diligently on taking the ball to the basket during the offseason prior to his junior year. As a result, he made 159 trips to the foul line last season, up from 60 trips the year before. Surprisingly enough, his free-throw percentage dropped by 10 percentage points, from 91.7 to 81.1. He expects to return to his 2005-06 level in 2007-08.
"I'm just trying to take my time," he said. "Last year I think I rushed my free throws a lot and didn't even think about it. When I shot that 80 percent I wasn't really happy about it because I knew I was a better free-throw shooter than that. I think this year, hopefully, I can get it back up."