The long goodbye

Tennessee basketball fans will be saying farewell to three seniors – Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell – Sunday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena. It could be a long goodbye, however.

Lofton, Smith and Howell won't be playing any more games at TBA after this weekend but they could be playing a lot more games in postseason action – up to three in the SEC Tournament next week in Atlanta and up to six in the NCAA Tournament that follows.

Of course, playing nine more games would require reaching the finals of both the SEC tourney and the NCAA tourney. Still, those goals are not unattainable – not for a trio that already has advanced light-years farther than anyone would've projected three years ago.

Lofton, Smith and Howell were freshmen on a 2004-05 squad that limped home 14-17 and cost head coach Buzz Peterson his job. Since then, they have helped Tennessee make one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NCAA hoops history. The Vols went 22-8 in '05-06, 24-11 in '06-07 and stand 27-3 thus far in '07-08.

Additionally, the Big Orange achieved a No. 2 seed – highest in program history – for the '06 NCAA Tournament, beating national champ Florida twice along the way. The Vols advanced to the Sweet 16 in '07. They achieved a No. 1 national ranking in '08 and claimed the program's first outright SEC title in 41 years. They are likely to receive an unprecedented No. 1 seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

The 73 wins already represents the best three-year total in program history. Lofton, Smith and Howell could push that total into the 80s by making some noise in postseason play. First, though, the Vols need to take care of South Carolina in the regular-season finale.

"That will be Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell's last game at the arena for Senior Day," UT head coach Bruce Pearl noted. "They have the winningest three-year record for three years at Tennessee. I hope our fans will come early and stay late."

Sunday will be a day for farewells at Thompson-Boling Arena. In addition to the final home appearance for Lofton, Smith and Howell, Gamecock head man Dave Odom will be coaching his final regular-season game. He is stepping down at season's end. That should provide a little extra motivation for South Carolina's players, who bring a disappointing 13-16 overall record and a 5-10 SEC mark into Sunday's 2 p.m. tipoff.

"We have work to do," Pearl said. "It will be Coach Dave Odom's last regular-season game. It will be a tough assignment for us."

Saying goodbye to Lofton, Smith and Howell will be a difficult assignment, too. They played key roles as Tennessee returned to national prominence after a long and frustrating absence.

Lofton, a four-year starter and preseason All-American, recently became the sixth player in UT history to score 2,000 career points. With 2,039 to his credit, he needs 27 points Sunday to pass Dale Ellis and move into fifth place on Tennessee's all-time scoring list.

Smith, who grew up in nearby Cleveland dreaming of playing for the Vols, came to Tennessee as a walk-on and quickly earned a scholarship with his hustle and athleticism. He recently broke a program record by hitting six of six 3-point shots vs. Arkansas. He ranks among the top six in UT history for 3-pointers made, 3-pointers attempted, 3-pointers per game, steals and steals per game.

Howell, who signed with UT a year ahead of Lofton and Smith but had to redshirt in 2003-04 due to mononucleosis, lacks the star power of his more celebrated classmates but has been a solid contributor as a backup point guard. He boasts a superb 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio this season.

There are sure to be a few tears when Lofton, Smith and Howell are introduced for the final time at Thompson-Boling Arena Sunday afternoon. Goodbyes are usually emotional.

This could be a long goodbye, however. Lofton, Smith and Howell just might have another eight or nine games left in them.


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