Winning a Southeastern Conference title was just a dream to Chris Lofton as a freshman guard at Tennessee.
Now it's close to becoming a reality for the top-ranked Volunteers.
"It was a dream because my freshman year we were 14-17 and we knew had no shot at the SEC title," said Lofton, now a senior. "Just to be here right now is a blessing, and we're just happy."
Tennessee (25-3, 11-2 SEC) is looking to put some distance between itself and Kentucky (16-10, 10-3) in the SEC rankings when it hosts the Wildcats on Sunday.
Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Tennessee -15 point spread favorites (View College Basketball odds) for today’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 58% of bets for this game have been placed on Kentucky +15 (View College Basketball bet percentages).
A win by Tennessee would give the Vols a two-game lead in the East Division with two games left to play. Tennessee is trying to win the conference outright for the first time in 41 years.
That task became tougher when Tennessee lost 72-69 to Vanderbilt on Tuesday, just a day after grabbing its first No. 1 ranking in history and three days after offing the previous No. 1 Memphis.
A win by Kentucky would vault the Wildcats, who have won their last four conference matchups, into first place in the East. A win might also help Kentucky squeak into the NCAA tournament.
But the Wildcats have to do it all without freshman phenom Patrick Patterson, who scored 20 points against the Vols in Kentucky's 72-66 win over Tennessee in January.
X-rays revealed Friday that Patterson was suffering a stress fracture in his left ankle. He will miss the rest of the season.
"They're going to know Patrick's not out there, but I would doubt they're going to change their whole attack," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. "Everyone's going to have to be a little smarter, a little tougher."
With the help of Patterson's shooting against the Vols in Lexington, Kentucky managed to slow down Tennessee, the highest scoring team in the league, averaging 82.8 points per game.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl credits Kentucky's success with controlling the tempo of the game to patience, solid defense and preventing fouls - something Tennessee is prone to.
"The league shoots more free throws against Tennessee than against any other team and we're fouling too much. You can be aggressive, but we have to be aggressive without fouling," said Pearl, who will break out his bright orange blazer in front of Tennessee's longtime rival.
The Wildcats hit four free throws in the last 1:30 against the Vols to put that game away.
Tennessee guard JaJuan Smith said the Vols have a good chance to grab revenge for that loss.
"We've got to treat it like a championship," he said. "Besides that it's going to be an intense game just from the past between both school."
Tennessee will honor a face from its past before the game Sunday by retiring All-American Ernie Grunfeld's No. 22 jersey.
Grunfeld played with All-American Bernard King, whose No. 53 was retired during last year's Kentucky game.
The timing of the event is particular - Tennessee's rivalry with Kentucky thrived in the late '70s during the days of the so-called "Ernie & Bernie Show."
Sunday's game may also be the last time Lofton, a Maysville, Ky., native, will have a chance to show off in front of the team that snubbed him.
Lofton always finds a way to shoot well against the Wildcats, but he said that chip on his shoulder isn't as big as it might have been his freshman year.
"It's a big game for me of course, but it's a big game for all of us. They're in the way of what we're trying to do - win a championship," he said. "I'm here for a reason and I couldn't ask for anything better."
by: Staff Writers - Email Us
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