Vols rising in the rankings despite Lofton’s struggles

Chris Lofton may have turned down the chance of a lifetime.

After averaging 20.8 points per game and nailing 41.9 percent of his 3-point attempts, Tennessee’s senior guard decided not to forego his senior season and opted against entering his name in the NBA Draft last year.

Through 17 games of his senior season, the Maysville, Ky., native has seen his scoring average drop to 13.4 points per game — his lowest since his freshman season; a career 46 percent shooter, he’s made just 34.5 percent of his field goal attempts and 33 percent of his 3-pointers.

So was Lofton’s decision to come back to college a bad one? Not at all, said head coach Billy Gillispie, whose Cats will take on Tennessee tonight at 9 in Rupp Arena.

“His team’s ranked third, so that would mean he’s playing better,” Gillispie said at a news conference yesterday. “He’s doing what his team asks him, and his team’s ranked third in the country. For someone to say he’s not having as good of a season, maybe they’re looking at individual things, but it’s a team game.”

Lofton comes into the matchup with his home-state school needing just five 3-pointers to pass former Arkansas player Pat Bradley — who made 366 triples from 1995-99 — to become the Southeastern Conference’s leader in made 3-pointers.

But Gillispie is not the type of coach to use that as motivation for his players.

“No,” he said when asked if stopping the record mattered to him. “It’s great that he’s had that kind of career so far. I couldn’t care less right now. We’re trying to win the game tomorrow for Kentucky, and he’s trying to win for Tennessee.”

Instead, Gillispie will harp on his team’s poor defensive outing against Florida on Saturday, when UK allowed the Gators to shoot 48 percent and score 81 points. Sophomore forward Ramon Harris said the Cats have focused on improving that defense this week and said the team has had good practices.

“But we have to carry that into the game,” Harris said. “You can practice as hard as you want, but if we don’t communicate in the game, if we don’t execute in the game, it’s not going to help us.”

Perhaps no team in the SEC is a better test for a defense than Lofton and the Volunteers.

Tennessee averages 84.5 points per game to lead the SEC in scoring, and only Vanderbilt has made more 3-pointers than UT’s 162.

But unlike past seasons, when the Vols leaned on Lofton’s scoring ability, this team boasts a far more balanced offensive attack.

Senior guard JaJuan Smith leads UT in scoring at 14.8 points per game, but that is good for only 15th in the conference and nearly six points less than Lofton’s team-leading 20.8 points per game last season. Five UT players have finished games as the leading scorer this season, including sophomore transfers, forward Tyler Smith and guard J.P. Prince, who have added depth to an already potent Tennessee offense.

More than a week ago, UK held Vanderbilt’s powerful offense to its lowest point total of the season. If the Cats show a similar defensive improvement against the Vols, it will be another stepping stone for a team that is showing improvement even if its 7-9 record is not gaudy.

“They’ve improved, in my opinion, greatly,” Gillispie said. “The record is definitely not where we thought we’d be or where we want to be, but it’s where we are. If we continue to have the right attitude and right work ethic and get a little more healthy, I think you’ll see a team that’s pretty fun to watch.”