Incomparable

The eyes of the college basketball world will be focused on the FedEx Forum tonight at 9, watching the No. 1 Memphis Tigers (26-0) host the No. 2 Tennessee Vols (24-2).

Programs such as Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville and UCLA are accustomed to the glare of the national spotlight. Not Tennessee. Several Vols admitted this week that they've never experienced anything even remotely approaching the excitement surrounding tonight's showdown in Memphis.

Senior guard Chris Lofton smiled when asked if he could recall an experience as significant as this one.

"Nothing," he said. "I've never played in anything like this before."

That's noteworthy since Lofton's career at Mason County High in Maysville, Ky., featured some very high-profile performances. He earned tournament MVP honors after leading his team to the 2003 state title, sinking a state-record 9 of 12 shots from 3-point range en route to a 39-point outing in the title game. He also scored 41 points in giving his state an 89-81 victory in the 2004 Kentucky-Indiana All-Star Game at Owensboro.

"The Kentucky-Indiana all-star game was big – that's a big rivalry right there – but it's not as big as this," Lofton said of the UT-Memphis matchup.

Vol sophomore Tyler Smith couldn't think of an experience that might rival facing Memphis with the No. 1 national ranking at stake, either. The most exciting games he can remember from his high school days were two celebrated 2003-04 match-ups against Brentwood Academy's Brandan Wright, who was rated the No. 1 junior prospect in America at the time. The game played at Smith's home gym in Pulaski was big but the one played in Nashville was even bigger because of the surroundings.

"The only game I've played in that was similar to this (Memphis) game was when we played Brandan Wright at Vanderbilt," Tyler Smith recalled. "That was the first time I ever got to play in a college gym with a lot of people in there.

"It was great."

Unless a lot of people miss their guess, tonight's UT-Memphis showdown will be great, too. The atmosphere is incomparable.

Just ask Chris Lofton and Tyler Smith.


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