During Chris Lofton’s slow start, Tennessee has been forced to rely on some of its lower-profile players. So far, that approach has worked just fine.
After showing off their depth to improve to 9-1 for the second time in three seasons under coach Bruce Pearl, the 12th-ranked Volunteers go for their fifth straight win on Wednesday when they host UNC-Asheville.
Tennessee entered this season with one of the most talented rosters in school history, but still expected to depend primarily on Lofton, who led the SEC with 20.8 points as a junior last season to earn conference player of the year honors.
Lofton, though, has struggled early in 2007-08. He’s averaging 14.4 points - his lowest mark since his freshman season - and shooting a career-low 34.8 percent from the field. After making more than 100 3-pointers in each of the last two seasons, Lofton is shooting a career-low 35.6 percent from beyond the arc this season.
Lofton didn’t take his first shot until 12 minutes into Saturday’s 88-82 win over Western Kentucky. He missed his first six attempts before finally making his first field goal with 44.6 seconds remaining in the first half.
Despite Lofton’s struggles, Tennessee managed to avoid the upset thanks in part to JaJuan Smith and Tyler Smith, who scored 19 and 16 points, respectively. The Vols also got a boost from freshman Brian Williams, who had 16 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots - all career highs - while going 8-for-11 from the field in 22 minutes off the bench.
The 6-foot-10 Williams had played in only six of the team’s first nine games, averaging just 11 minutes in those contests.
“You have to ask, ‘What in the world was he doing on the bench for whatever period of time?’” Pearl said. “We had seen that, just kind of always try to give the advantage to the veterans. He is everything we thought he could be and then some.”
The Volunteers added depth Saturday with the addition of guard J.P. Prince, who made his Tennessee debut after transferring from Arizona midway through last season. He had eight points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes.
“I knew he’d help us. I just didn’t know how quickly he would,” Pearl said. “You could see he’s got a chance to really be special and make us a better basketball team.”
Tennessee could use another well-rounded effort against UNC-Asheville (8-2), which is off to its best start in 14 years.
The Bulldogs had five players score in double figures in their 87-76 win over South Carolina State on Monday, improving to 8-2 for the first time since 1983-84. Coach Eddie Biedenbach moved past Jerry Green into second place on the school’s all-time list with his 151st victory.
Asheville will put its strong start on the line against a Tennessee team it has never beaten. The Volunteers have won all four games in the series, including an 80-67 victory in the teams’ last meeting Dec. 30, 2003.
“Tennessee is very good and among the top teams in the country,” Biedenbach said. “They’re a team that plays great defense and just simply wears you down. Bruce has the Tennessee program going in such a positive direction right now. We know that we’re in for a huge challenge Wednesday night.”
The Vols are undefeated at home this season, having won their first six games in Knoxville by an average of 36.5 points. Their 22-game win streak at Thompson-Boling Arena is the fifth-longest active home winning streak in the country.