For every J.J. Redick or Bracey Wright, highly sought after prospects who turn into BMOC shooting guards in college, there's a kid who slipped through the cracks. Sometimes it's because the kid blossoms late. Other times, it's because the big schools just never came calling. Maybe he's too short, too slow or too unlikely to succeed. In the case of Tennessee sophomore Chris Lofton, it was some combination of all of these.
You see, Lofton grew up in Maysville, KY, in the shadows of Kentucky and Louisville, two of the most successful and high-profile college programs in NCAA history. Despite being named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball in 2004, Lofton barely warranted a recruiting call, much less a scholarship offer, from either of the big boys. A 39-point performance in the 2003 Sweet 16 high school title game? Still nothing. And in some ways, who could blame them?
Afer all, the 6'2" Lofton was ranked anywhere from 120-200 by most of the recruiting services. Seen as a great shooter with limited athleticism and stuck playing against mostly low Division 1-caliber talent in Kentucky, Lofton seemed destined for a Conference USA or a bottom-feeding SEC school. Kentucky took a look, but never offered a scholarship. Louisville called, but never enough. Eventually, Kentucky grabbed three guards in a freshman class ranked No. 2 by Rivals; Louisville came in at No. 9. However good Lofton was, the message was clear: there is still someone better. Heck, even Lofton acknowledges as much.
"They had players coming in here higher ranked than I was. You can't blame them."
But one school kept on the kid the big boys forgot. Despite getting some late interest from Cincinnati, Maysville's native son chose Buzz Peterson and the Tennessee Volunteers, who had maintained contact and interest throughout the recruiting process. Still, his signing caused barely a ripple except among a few Kentucky high school die-hards. Things seemed set.
But how things can change once the ball is tipped.
At Tennessee, Lofton showed more than just an accurate jump shot. He worked hard to improve his all-around game, using his shooting early in the game to get defenses worried about him, then driving to the hoop with abandon. He got plenty of playing time, too. Having a potential first team All-SEC point guard in CJ Watson certainly hasn't hurt. Lofton has also shown himself to be a better-than-expected passer and a capable ballhandler. And then there's always that beautiful jump shot.
Lofton buried 93 from long range as a freshman at a 47% clip, making the All-SEC Freshman team. But Tenneessee limped to a losing record and head coach Buzz Peterson was shown the door. Some speculated a now successful Lofton might want to transfer back home to Kentucky or Louisville, who admitted regret in not giving the former Mason County star a closer look. But Lofton was having none of that, and after seeing what new coach Bruce Pearl had to offer decided to stick around.
The decision proved prudent, as Pearl's up-tempo system and the new energy surrounding the Tennessee program has only fed into Lofton's strengths as an offensive player. On the year, Lofton has picked up where he left off, averaging a team-high 17 points a game on 49% shooting (45% from deep). More impotantly for his team and his basketball future, the Vols have scratched, clawed and bombed their way on the cusp of the top 10, and to the SEC lead.
In his first return to Rupp Arena, the scene of his 39-point outburst to bring the Sweet 16 title to Mason County, Lofton didn't disappoint with 19 points (5 threes) and 5 rebounds. This year? All he did was drop a cool 31, wafting jumpers while falling down, coming off screens and everything in between. His then career-high 7 three-pointers broke the back of his homestate school as the Vols kept rolling. He followed that up with 33 and a new career best with 9 three-pointers in a win over Georgia. Whether he's still too slow or too short, he's definitely not unlikely to succeed. And it's not just a recent thing. Lofton laid 29 on Florida (Corey Brewer, Taurean Green) and has a history of coming up big in big games -- ever since high school.
Lofton still isn't a threat to enter the draft early, and there are things he certainly needs to work on to even become a legitimate draft prospect. He's defensively sound, but wouldn't scare anyone matchupwise. And though his passing and ball-handling skills are ever-improving, he will have to rev up the process to become more of a combo guard and therefore a more draftable NBA player. Especially with Watson graduating after this year and no one on the radar to replace his stewardship of the offense, Lofton has a chance to develop his point guard skills under Bruce Pearl and next to Dane Bradshaw.
If Lofton needs a basketball role model, look no further than current Hawk Salim Stoudamire, who also had a knock as a deadly shooter with limited athleticism who couldn't run the point. If there's one thing Lofton has proven -- and there are many -- it's that he will put the work in to improve.
With the NCAA tournament approaching and his Tennessee mates rapidly closing in on the pod system, Lofton is one to watch. Like Stoudemire, he puts forth his premier effort in showcase games, and there will be a lot more attention on this Volunteer squad than people think, if only because Pearl will make it so. As for Lofton, the Kentucky kid with ice water in his veins is just happy honing his skills and keeping his focus on the task at hand. Because the past is the past, and the future is bright (orange); so he's taking nothing personally.
It is real special coming back to my home state, but [Lexington] is not home -- home is Maysville [Kentucky]. It is just another game, just another win in the SEC. I am just having fun playing basketball at Tennessee.