Thursday, December 07, 2006

Chris Lofton is special

You know those moments in your life where you stop and realize that you're a lot older than you thought you were? Those times where you're like "wait, what?!" when you see or hear something that dates you much older than you'd like to admit?

Larry Bird turned 50. And I'm in denial. If he's not going through mid-life crisis, he's at least putting me through a quarter-life one.

On SportsCenter this morning, they made a very, very true analogy. If you grew up in suburban America in the 1980s and have ever shot jumpers in your driveway, Larry Bird was your hero. And he's never been replaced. And he never will be. If you're a Celtic fan like myself, even if you're not from Boston, the bond runs even deeper. There's nothing I can say about Bird that Bill Simmons didn't say better in a perspective piece you can find right here. But the point he makes about a missed Bird shot being a rarity - the way a Peyton Manning possession not ending in points is today - still rings true. Bird was money. And there's very much a part of me that still believes that if he put on jersey on right now (and if it was still Celtic green, he'd be the second best player on the floor) and you put him in the game down two with :03 left, you'd better foul him. And that probably won't work anyway.

Which brings us to Wednesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee is 6-2 and dropped the ball in their first chance for national attention this year, going the big o-fer in Madison Square Garden at the Preseason NIT. Now we've all got a man crush on Bruce Pearl, but in this present reality the Vols are full of freshmen, lost two critical positions with CJ Watson's graduation and Major Wingate's dismissal, and I've heard the phrase "lightning in a bottle" more in the last four weeks than I care to remember. I'm in Virginia, but my sister, live from the student section, tells me that there's a lot of "Memphis is going to kill us" going around. Which is a whole other blog to talk about how quickly we lose faith in Bruce Pearl and just assume the hammer is going to be dropped on us.

Now, #5 in orange has made some big shots. In the Vols' big wins last year, he made critical run-inducing shots against Texas once and Florida twice. He made an impossible shot with the game on the line to beat Winthrop in the first round of the tourney. And he had an ability to take over last year against lesser opponents, with his two career best point totals coming against Georgia last year and Louisiana-Lafayette this year.

If you were watching last season when the Vols went to Rupp Arena and subsequently won there for the second time in my entire life, you saw the flash. Lofton took over the game against a good team. He carried the Vols on his back. He was unconscious against our biggest rival in their hostile environment, scoring 31 points, hitting 7 of 10 from three point range (which is beyond absurd), and grabbing seven rebounds in an eight point Tennessee victory. And when that happened, I remember thinking that playing a team from his home state was always going to bring out the best in him, that he had an extra gear that he shifted into against the Cats (much the way Dane Bradshaw does when he plays Memphis). For all of this, Chris Lofton is the second best shooting guard in College Hoops 2K7. Among other things.

Now, it's been an up and down affair to be a true Tennessee Basketball fan. Ernie & Bernie are before my time, I barely remember Stokley Athletic Center and I have sparse memories of Dyron Nix and Dale Ellis. And I am definitely old enough to remember Wade Houston (as a proud two-time alum of his basketball camps). But there have been moments of greatness here and there among the heartbreak and pain.

And there have been some memorable players. Brandon Wharton was a clutch player. I can still remember CJ Black and Udonis Haslem going head to head in two overtimes in Gainesville and another overtime in Knoxville. And every Vol fan will always have a special place in their heart for Ron Slay. There's also "that white guy" tradition at UT that reads like an Old Testament lineage: Lang Wiseman to Aaron Green to Jenis Grindstaff to Dane Bradshaw.

I remember Allan Houston, who is the only truly great player that I've seen wear the orange. There were moments where you'd look at Isaiah Victor or Marcus Haislip and say "wow, if only...", but Houston was the real deal. He proved as much in the NBA. Houston is the standard for my generation of Tennessee Basketball.

Chris Lofton is already the best three point shooter you and I have ever seen in person in college basketball. There's no argument about that. Even if you happened upon JJ Reddick once, he didn't create shots and make difficult ones the way Lofton does, Reddick had four other guys on the floor who demanded much more respect than any of Lofton's teammates. And that was his reputation, in the SEC and nationally: "this guy is a great three point shooter."

You heard the rumors of him working on his game over the summer, getting better off the dribble, bulking up. We thought, "that's cool, whatever." He had proved already that he still had the ability to shoot the three coming into last night.

So here comes nationally ranked Memphis, with their talent and Willie Kemp and John Calipari. Bruce Pearl has played his part, stoking the fires of this rivalry back in September. (Pearl finally gives me an idea of what it was like to be a Florida fan under Spurrier or a Kentucky fan under Pitino. Because everyone else has to hate this guy as much as we love him.) ESPN2 is there. This is the first big home game of the season.

And thank God for TiVo.

In the pregame, the announcers (and let me fall all over Brad Nessler, as perhaps pound for pound the best PBP man at covering any sport. Great at football, great at basketball) are talking about the potential of the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry. But what creates rivalry is the exchange. The Vols need to beat Memphis for it to become a big deal for the Tigers. And you can see the essence of that when the technical fouls start flying 2:09 into the game.

Lofton gets called for traveling on his first thought of a three pointer. That'll be the last thing he does wrong.

Next possession, Lofton gets a rebound, dribbles down, penetrates to the free throw line and jump stops from 17 feet for two. And the announcers immediately pick up on the fact that it's against his instinct to do something like that, but it's making him better. He's not jacking threes, he's becoming a complete basketball player.

Memphis hits a three to take an 11-7 lead. Ramar Smith dribbles across and immediately finds Lofton, who pumps off the three and two defenders, drives in and then floats one in falling away. Two offensive moves, two baskets from inside the arc. Now that he's earned their respect going in, it's time to turn out the lights.

Memphis miss, Ramar Smith comes out on 3 on 2, and you can see it coming. Lofton running down the wing and calling for the ball, spot, shoot, three. Tennessee leads 12-11. Lofton gets a breather after the first seven minutes, and what follows are three minutes of totally unwatchable basketball. Memphis couldn't hit water falling out of a boat, and Tennessee is young, small, and struggling to find an offensive identity when #5 is on the bench. (And another nice job by Nessler here, coming back from the timeout, to put Pearl's comments about Memphis' lack of respect for the Vols into their proper context.)

Lofton comes back in, and on the first offensive possession, Lofton draws heat from behind the arc, swings it to Chism, who fires it cross court to Jordan Howell for three. Excellent ball movement. Memphis ties it at 15 before Chism decides to bank in a three (slow night for the Bolivar boys: these will be Chism's only points, Willie Kemp shoots 1 of 11). Memphis responds with a crowd-silencing alley-oop, and it's 18-17 Vols with 8:55 to play in the half. We hit the TV timeout at 20-17 with 7:53 left, and everyone in orange has got the "hey, we can play with these guys" complex now.

I remember this complex well. The last time I saw it was at Texas, almost one year ago.

Now, Duke Crews has a part in this. He scores consecutive points, including a follow-slam, to put the Vols up 22-17. I like Crews a lot and think he's going to be a player and a factor this year, because he certainly was last night. But he just set the table.

Memphis miss, Vols come down and go to Lofton, who catches this thing a good four feet behind the line and pumps once. The Memphis defender doesn't step out, and it's that moment those who've been watching are familiar with from Lofton by now: "well screw you then, I'm shooting from here." Net. Suddenly the Vols are up 8, and Lofton hasn't missed a shot.

Perhaps my favorite part from last night comes on the next possession, after Crews blocks a shot and Ramar Smith gives it to Lofton, standing at the next to last "E" in "TENNESSEE", which is a good 12 feet behind the line, and the crowd yells "THREE!" Lofton, instead, crosses up the defender and gets a layup. And that, my friends, is the difference between this year and last.

Sometimes you get those tangible moments, even in Thompson Boling, where you can just feel like the Vols are getting ready to run away and everything's going in. When Ron Slay and friends were freshman and nationally ranked Auburn came to town, it happened in a game that became the first statement in Jerry Green's tenure. It's happened at other points. I wasn't there last night, but watching on TV and hearing the crowd, you get the idea. At this point the Vols are up 10 and on a 9-0 run. And this thing is just getting started.

A timeout won't stop the bleeding. Even when Lofton does miss, Crews is there for a rebound and another technical foul that could've ended the run, but instead fed the fire. When he misses again, the Vols get the rebound and score again. When Memphis finally scores, Lofton answers with another drive and tough layup.

It's 33-20 when we go to the final TV timeout of the first half, and Vol fans are thinking "alright, just hang on to this lead to the locker room, we're doing great." But there's plenty more fury to be unleashed. This thing won't die.

And at this point, it's become this thing where when Lofton gets the ball, you're not just expecting the long three. You're holding your breath, and you're more than just waiting for something good to happen. You're expecting it. So it is right out of the timeout, with another tough penetration basket, this time left-handed. He's doing like that kid from the pick-up games who's shorter and slower than you, and keeps putting up these shots where you're like "I should block that!" and it inches over your fingertips and glides into the basket. If he's not drilling you from three, he's embarassing you inside. Then, at 37-20, when Memphis misses three shots from point blank including a dunk, outlet goes to Lofton, another layup. At this point, Lofton has 18 points, and he's only hit two threes. He has zero free throws.

It's one thing to score 31 points in Rupp Arena when you get 21 of them from the three point line and another two at the stripe. That means you had an outstanding night from beyond the arc and you were hot. But what Lofton did last night was something else. This was the transition from a three point shooter to a basketball force to be reckoned with. This wasn't Georgia or the Rajun Cajuns. This was "the most dominant basketball program in the state." And Lofton wasn't done.

You feel like you blinked and the Vols went from "we can play with these guys" to up 19 with 3:20 left in the half. And maybe you did. And, to be fair, it's unreal how many shots Memphis missed from point blank in the first half. With the score 39-20 with 1:17 left in the half, Lofton caps it. They let Lofton catch the ball 12 feet behind the arc. And it's over. He faces up a defender several inches taller than him and with a longer wingspan, drives, stops, pulls up and drops the hammer. At this point, the score is Chris Lofton 21 - Memphis 20.

Memphis would try and make it interesting in the second half a couple of times, as a talented team will do. With Lofton on the bench for part of it, the Tigers cut the 23 point lead to 15 by the first TV timeout. Then they cut it to 12 with a three at 13:45, and all of a sudden you're nervous for the first time since the TV timeout under 8:00 in the first half. It's 47-35 and they don't let Lofton have the ball anywhere within 35 feet of the basket. But they let him touch it at 40, and it's the same thing: dribble drive, pull up, three. Doesn't really matter who's guarding him. When Memphis answers with a three, Lofton makes what Calipari called the biggest play of the game: an offensive rebound off a Chism missed three, and drawing a foul on Joey Dorsey that would send him to the bench with four. Lofton hits his first free throws of the night.

Then Lofton puts the nail in the coffin with a three falling into the first row on the next trip down.

He would hit two free throws and one more three before he was done in a game that was already decided. The Vols wipe Memphis 76-58. New career high for Lofton with 34 points.

Now, is he going to do that every night? No. But every time he touches the ball, you're holding your breath. We've seen greatness here in Allan Houston, we've seen crowd favorites, and we've seen talent, both harnessed and wasted. But you've never seen something like Chris Lofton if you're my age (25) or younger. Tennessee hasn't had a "take over the game" player, and Lofton was capable of doing that last year if he was hot from 3. This year, against a great team, no matter with whom or how they tried to guard him, Lofton took over. He wasn't just hot. He was good.

What Larry Bird was as a Celtic fan, Chris Lofton is becoming as a Tennessee fan. No, he's obviously not Larry Bird and never will be - he's Chris Lofton. But the essence is there. The "when I get the ball, I'm going to make whatever shot I good and well please" factor is there. You put your faith in this guy on every shot. You believe. And he believes too. A miss is rare. When he takes some ridiculous 3 with a guy hanging on him, falling out of bounds, it still never fails to take your breath away, or make you stand in front of your TV and yell with glee in the middle of Virginia while people drive by and wonder just what in the world you're working on in there. But when he makes it, you're not surprised. This is the one you tell your friends about now, and you'll tell your family you saw years later, when he'll win any comparison about three point shooting at Tennessee. This guy is worth watching every opportunity you get. This kid is special, rare, unique. And the story is still being written. This is Chris Lofton.

Nevermind what any NBA scout will say about him, his size and his limitations. He's here now. And you've got a chance to watch and enjoy him for at least one more year, probably two. Tennessee is capable of beating anybody they play because of this guy and Bruce Pearl. It's hard to tell who I'm more in love with at this point. And for the first time in a long time, it's consistently great to be a Tennessee Vol in basketball season too.

(Bonus: I have my things with announcers as an ex-play by play man for Alcoa High School football, and I would hate this if the color man acted this way at a football game...but Bert Berttlekamp is a rare breed as a color commentator on the Vol Network. The "Money!" line on Lofton's threes is familiar by now. But it's the pure enthusiasm, the "OOOHHH!" on Crews' follow slam, followed by "Throw it down Duke!" The "WOOOOOOO!! MONEY!!" on Lofton's next deep three. The "Use him!" comment when Lofton crossed up a Memphis defender for a layup. There's "Talk to me Dane!" when Bradshaws scores late. And the weird: when JaJuan Smith hits his "how did that NOT make SportsCenter?!" 360 dunk, the highlight of the evening? Berttlekamp: "He really took a chance there, the defender wasn't that far behind him." And even Bob Kesling, who suffers greatly for not being John Ward, when he gets going as the Vols get on a run in basketball, can make some memories for you. But right now, UT Basketball wouldn't be the same without them. To see what I'm talking about, or just to see the highlights, you can click here and then on "Game Highlights").

1 comment:

Jeff Wright said...

Dude, nice piece, I really enjoyed reading that one.

You know, I never know when UT is going to play (or my first love, UNC, for that matter).

Any time you want to publish a "Vols on National TV" alert it'd be appreciated. Not that it's up to you to keep us informed.

Anyway, good post.