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January 5, 2007

Lofton shooting his way into nation's elite

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With the regular season reaching the midway point and conference play starting, the main candidates for national player of the year are coming into focus.

Wisconsin's Alando Tucker looks like the early front-runner. Behind him you've got North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, LSU's Glen Davis and Nevada's Nick Fazekas.

None of those names are surprises, but there is someone who is also in the mix that certainly is unexpected.

Tennessee guard Chris Lofton entered the season with a reputation as a great outside shooter and that was it. Lofton hadn't received near the acclaim or the attention of Hansbrough, Davis and Fazekas, who have combined for three league player of the year awards and a pair of league freshman of the year awards.

But Lofton has scored 30 or more points in five games. The four other players mentioned above have combined to do it just once (Tucker had 32 points in Wisconsin's 89-75 win over Pittsburgh).

Lofton has carried the No. 19 Volunteers (12-2) during their current eight-game winning streak, averaging 26.7 points a game and shooting 48 percent (35 of 72) from 3-point range during a stretch that included wins over No. 12 Oklahoma State, in-state rival Memphis and Texas.

"It's hard for me to imagine a player having a better month than Lofton," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.

Lofton being mentioned as one of the nation's top players has to do with him becoming more aggressive offensively. The junior has already attempted more free throws (75) than he did all of last season (60).

Opposing coaches have noticed a change when scouting the same guard who used to be labeled a 3-point specialist.

"(Lofton) is the total package," said Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, whose Bulldogs travel to Tennessee for both team's SEC opener on Sunday. "He's as good as any guard in America.

"His range is in areas you don't guard, and he's so deceptively quick. He has the ability to put it on floor and is also clever on how to use body to draw fouls. Plus, we all know what he's going to do if fouled (Lofton is a career 86 percent free-throw shooter). I don't think anybody has figured out how to guard him. You just hope he's not at his best when he faces you. If he is at his best, then you are at his mercy."

In addition to Tennessee's win-loss record, much of Lofton's chances of staying in the hunt may rest on his ability to keep getting to the free-throw line.

Nobody in the nation took more free throws than Gonzaga's Adam Morrison (311) and Duke's J.J. Redick (256) last season, and they combined to collect all of the national 2005-06 player of the year awards.

Wondering if your team can bounce back from a slow start? Want to know why your favorite player isn't higher in our power rankings?

Rivals.com college basketball writer Andrew Skwara answers your questions every week in his Mailbag column. Click here to send him a question.
Coaches not concerned with RPI - yet

As we enter the start of conference play, the Big 12 ranks as the sixth best conference according to the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index). But that doesn't concern Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie, who believes the Big 12 will be able to make an argument for being the toughest and deepest league by the end of the season.

"This is by far the best I have seen the league in the three years I've been here, from top to bottom," Gillispie said. "We have 11, maybe 12 teams that will play in the postseason. I don't see how there could be a more competitive league anywhere.

"The RPI situation is going to take care of itself and I think (the NCAA Tournament committee) is probably going to put less and less into that in when determining the field."

Stansbury feels similarly about the SEC, which is ranked fourth behind the Pac-10, ACC and Missouri Valley.

"I think the league is the best I've seen in a long time, top to bottom," Stansbury said. "Everybody talks about the three or four teams at the top, but I think it's the deepest it's been in years."

The Big Ten was ranked as the No. 1 conference by the RPI heading into the 2006 NCAA Tournament, but all six of the league's teams who received bids were either knocked out in the first or second rounds.

Trivia Question: Who holds the ACC record for most points scored by an individual in a single game? Hint: He is currently the general manager of an NBA franchise. (Answer at the bottom.)

Blame the Jetlag

Gonzaga has long been known for its ambitious scheduling, but coach Mark Few may have overdone it this season.

The Zags traveled nearly 18,000 miles by the time they reached their last non-conference destination at Virginia on Wednesday night. The result was a 108-87 loss that wasn't nearly as close as the score might indicate. Gonzaga looked sluggish right from the start, falling behind 32-11. The Bulldogs were trailing 60-26 at halftime.

Few was quoted in the Washington Post saying, "That's bad as we've been, certainly in the eight years I've been head coach."

Giant-Sized Rust

The biggest buzz created during North Carolina's 93-62 thrashing of UNC-Asheville last month came from one of the Bulldogs' little-used reserves. That's because that reserve was 7-foot-6, 335-pound Kenny George - the biggest player in college basketball.

How could someone that large wind up at a small school? Just what's the story behind the giant?

Well, it turns out George had committed to Valparaiso coming out of Latin High in Chicago. But George said the school pulled its scholarship offer late in his senior year. With little interest from other schools, he wound up at UNC-Asheville.

George actually spent his first year in college as a student only. After joining the team as a sophomore last season, he dislocated a knee in practice and was forced to take a medical redshirt.

Having not played in two years, George says his main goal is just working his way back into playing shape. The seven minutes George played against UNC was just the second game of his career.

"I'm just working my way back," George said. "It's taken a long time to get my knee healthy and it's a long process to get back into good condition."

George said his extraordinary height comes from his parents. His father is 6-foot-3 and his mother is 6 feet tall.

Quick Hits

  • Colorado can relate to many of the football teams that are playing in bowl games after more than a month layoff. At least the ones that managed to shake off the rust and win. The Buffaloes (4-6) went 25 days without playing a game before beating Central Florida 96-87 on Wednesday night. The layoff, which was the longest in school history, was caused by the recent snowstorms in the Denver area which canceled home games against UC-Davis (Dec. 23) and TCU (Dec. 30).

  • The status of Oklahoma State guard Terrel Harris remains questionable for the Cowboys' Big 12 opener against visiting Baylor on Saturday. Harris injured his eye in an off-the-court incident. Assistant coach James Dickey said he was hopeful Harris could play and that "it may be a game time decision."

  • Expect former Arizona guard J.P. Prince to transfer to Vanderbilt soon. Prince, who left Arizona last month, seriously considered Vanderbilt during the recruiting process. He made an official visit to the SEC school, which is about three hours from his Memphis home. The former five-star recruit was a little-used reserve for the Wildcats, seeing limited action in just four games this season.

    Stat Line of the Week: Marist point guard Jared Jordan, who led the nation in assists last season, put together a triple-double against Loyola-Maryland on Tuesday. He scored 12 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out 10 assists. Jordan also racked up seven turnovers in what turned out to be a 77-69 loss for the Red Foxes.

    Answer: Duke's Danny Ferry scored 58 points against Miami on Dec. 12, 1988. Ferry is the Cleveland Cavaliers general manager.

    Andrew Skwara is the national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. Click here to send him a question or comment for his Mailbag.

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