Time is Ticking For Chris Lofton
"When we played them my freshman year, it meant a lot to me trying to get back at them,'' said Lofton, "for not recruiting me so hard. But it's all over now. It's four years later and we're trying to go to the Elite 8.''
"I think he chose the right school,'' said Louisville coach Rick Pitino on Wednesday in previewing Thursday night's 9:57 game. "They were rebuilding, he got the opportunity to play right away, so I think it was -- I don't think anybody missed on him. It's just that Tennessee knew what they wanted and certainly he's a great fit for Tennessee and Tennessee is a great fit for Chris.''
"I think the media and fans have been way too critical of both Louisville and Kentucky,'' said Vol coach Bruce Pearl, referring to the fact neither instate school pushed hard to get Lofton to sign, though he was a Mr. Basketball. "I think Coach Pitino is on record as saying they recruited and offered him. If you look at the players both Louisville and Kentucky were able to sign, at that time they were better than Chris Lofton. There were better prospects and they may well have been better players.
"Chris is from an area, Mason County, Kentucky, where there is such wonderful pride in Kentucky basketball, and the basketball in that state. In that state, they don't let them get away. They love their players. Chris had a following in Tennessee that came right out of Kentucky and that town was in orange for four years because they love their Mr. Basketball. I don't think you can blame Kentucky and Louisville for taking better players and I don't think you can blame Chris Lofton for becoming the player that he became. He is a self-made player. Give no coach credit. Give credit to Chris Lofton for being the hardest-working player that we've had in four years, for being a gym rat and for getting the most out of his ability.''
Lofton comes into the game with 429 career 3-point shots made -- third best all time in NCAA annals. Lofton is six short of the No. 2 man on the list, Keydren Clark of St. Peter's who finished with 435 in 2006. The all-time leader is J.J. Redick of Duke, who finished with 457 in 2006. Lofton would have to make it all the way to the NCAA finals and average seven 3-point shots made a game to equal Redick. But Clark is catchable, if Lofton can lead his team to victory against Louisville and earn a Region finals matchup.
Pearl said putting Lofton's foot in a boot this week was simply a precaution.
"According to our trainers, if Chris had to play in a game on Tuesday, he would have played. Instead, we chose to keep him in a boot at practice. He got on a bike and got his cardio workout. He watched what we were looking to try to do to defend Louisville. He will practice today (Wednesday). I don't know how long he will go and I think he should be fine.''
Lofton says he hurt the ankle in the overtime period against Butler, but showed no signs of being injured after the game. He was moving normally in the locker room.
"I'm fine,'' said Lofton on Wednesday. "It was precautionary to ice it and take care of it. It was no big deal.''
Pitino warns that the secret to stopping Tennessee does not lie in stopping Lofton.
"This is a team, like us, that can play 10 to 12 people,'' said Pitino. "So if you just worry about Chris, you're going to get beat at other positions. If you just worry about Tyler (Smith) ... You've got to worry about the whole scheme of players. They're all outstanding and they're deep and talented. We all know Chris' range, but he's added so much to his game. He's got a great ball fake, takes it to the basket well, he's an improved passer, so he's gotten significantly better.''
So has Louisville, as the season's gone on. The Cardinals were without center David Padgett for part of the season after he suffered a knee injury. He has missed 10 of the Cardinals' 34 games. Juan Palacios has missed nine game, due to injury. When both came back strong and healthy, Louisville took off. Pitino insists two late-season losses -- at Georgetown on Senior Day and to Pittsburgh in the first round of the Big East Tournament -- came on days his team played well, but Georgetown and Pittsburgh played better.
"We came together in February and played well,'' said Pitino. "We came together at the right time.''
Georgetown and Pittsburgh are now out of the tournament, so Louisville is carrying the Big East banner, along with upstart Villanova. Tennessee is the lone SEC team remaining.
Louisville's other six losses were to BYU in the Las Vega Invitational in November, to Dayton on Dec. 8 at home, to Purdue on Dec. 15 in Indianapolis, to Cincinnati on Jan. 1, to Seton Hall on Jan. 19, and at UConn on Jan. 28. Starting Feb. 2, they won nine straight before losing at Georgetown on March 8.
So who will win tonight?
I will still with my pick before tournament play began: Tennessee over Louisville. The buck will stop when the Vols have to play North Carolina on Saturday in the East Region Finals.
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