Long line of Volunteers (cont.)
Posted: Friday January 18, 2008 12:42AM; Updated: Friday January 18, 2008 10:20AM
There was backup point guard Ramar Smith, dishing out nine assists against one turnover in 21 minutes, and backup swingman J.P. Prince, who transferred in from Arizona, adding six points and two blocks in 17 minutes. There was Iowa transfer Tyler Smith, who has not just forced his way into the Vols' starting lineup but established himself as their most versatile player, going for 14 points, nine boards and three steals in 30 minutes. (Of Tyler's intangible contributions, Pearl said, "I can't begin to tell you the confidence he brings to this team; he talks the talk a little, but he walks the walk in a huge way.") And last, but not least, there was JaJuan Smith, the combo guard who was formerly Lofton's sidekick but is now the Vols' top scorer in SEC play, going for 14 points and six boards.
The final box score showed four Tennessee players in double figures, and three more with six points each. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings prefers not to describe that phenomenon with the word "depth," though. "I didn't feel like we were worn down by [the Volunteers'] depth," he said. "The quality is better. It's not just that they're deep. They're good and deep now."
To find a team that can be crippled by its shooting star going cold, look no further than the one Stallings put on the floor Thursday. Swingman Shan Foster entered the game averaging 20.6 points and shooting 51.1 percent from long-range -- but went 1-for-11 on three-point attempts, and finished with just 14 points. Foster, the only Commodore other than Ogilvy in double figures, was unable to pick up the slack when Ogivly missed 12 minutes of the first half after picking up his second foul. Vanderbilt's offense was held to 36.8 percent shooting from the field, and just 14.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc; as Chism said, "both [Foster and Ogilvy] were very frustrated tonight."
While Vandy is mostly a two-headed monster, Tennessee has five or six options on any given night. Lofton is merely one of them, his three-point skills offering an antidote to situations like the one, around the 15-minute mark in the second half, when Stallings decided to drop his team into a zone for the first time all game. That was the moment Lofton chose to knock down his first three of the night, putting the Vols up by 16 and sending a relieved Thompson-Boling crowd into a frenzy.
Three minutes and 21 seconds later, with 11:28 left on the clock, Lofton dusted off one of his patented moves from yesteryear: a step-back, swished three from the left wing. Tennessee's lead hit 21, its biggest of the night. Lofton finished with 11 points, and there was sense of hope, in the postgame interviews, that he might soon rediscover his stroke. But Pearl would rather the press cease badgering Lofton about it in the meantime. "He's tired of answering questions about why he's not [shooting well], OK?" said Pearl. "So let's put those aside. Asked and answered, asked and answered."
It would be nice to have Lofton clicking again, but the truth is, Tennessee could probably win the SEC without him doing anything beyond what he's doing now, which is blending into its brigade of versatile scorers. I could even envision the Vols making a Final Four run in which Lofton does little more than hit enough threes to keep opposing coaches from using zones that would limit the driving lanes of Tennessee's trio of Smiths.
The problem with that scenario is that it's impossible, at the same time, not to wonder just how deadly Tennessee would be if Lofton were the same marksman of old. Had we never seen that version of him in the first place, accepting the Volunteers' new reality would be so much easier to do.
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