Lofton's lull

Last year he was the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer. This year he isn't even his team's leading scorer.

Last year he shot 47.9 percent from the floor. This year he's shooting 34.8.

Last year he hit 41.9 percent of his 3-point attempts. This year he's hitting 35.6.

Last year he averaged 20.8 points per game. This year's average is 14.4, a drop of nearly 6.5 points per game.

To date at least, All-America guard Chris Lofton has been nowhere near the force this season that he was a year ago. That has caused more alarm among Vol fans, however, than among Vol coaches.

"He's shooting 39 percent from 3 in his last six games," head coach Bruce Pearl noted. "He's second in the SEC in 3-pointers made at 3.2 (per game). I don't know how many he averaged last year ... my guess is 3.4 or 3.5. He's going to break Allan Houston's record (for 3-pointers by a Vol) on Wednesday night (against visiting UNC-Asheville)."

One factor that undoubtedly has reduced Lofton's scoring output this season is the arrival of Iowa transfer Tyler Smith. The addition of Smith's 13 points per gives the Vols another scoring option. That means Lofton no longer is looked to for 20-plus points each time he takes the floor.

"It's nice that he doesn't have to take so many tough shots," Pearl said. "I think he's continued to play better and better but he is on a team that has more balance, that has some more weapons. Therefore, he doesn't have to carry us, night in and night out."

There may be an even bigger reason for Lofton's reduced impact this season: He isn't scoring a lot of points because the Vols don't need him scoring a lot of points. No. 12 Tennessee has fashioned a 9-1 record against a so-so early-season schedule. Once the competition is stepped up a notch, it's likely that Lofton will step up his game a notch.

That certainly was the case last year, as Lofton routinely gave his very best performances when the Vols needed his very best. He scored 34 points in an upset of Memphis, 35 in an overtime defeat of Texas, 29 in a tough loss at Vanderbilt, 23 in a late-season defeat of Kentucky, 31 in a clutch win at Arkansas, 21 in an upset of No. 3 Florida, 25 in a first-round NCAA Tournament defeat of Long Beach State and 24 in a Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State.

"I believe this is true in sport: Your best players have got to separate themselves when you play the best people on your schedule," Pearl said. "All things are equal when you play the best teams on your schedule, and that's when the cream rises to the top."

With games against Xavier (Dec. 22) and Gonzaga (Dec. 29) upcoming, Lofton needs to be rising to the top pretty shortly.

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