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Chris Lofton the greatest Tennessee basketball player of all time

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When Chris Lofton’s number went up at Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday at halftime of the game between Tennessee basketball and the Kentucky Wildcats, he joined a rare group of Vol legends. However, he’s unique among them all.

Lofton’s No. 5 was retired to stand alongside the jerseys of Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Dale Ellis and Allan Houston. Every one of them played at least eight years in the NBA except for Lofton, who played none.

Furthermore, three of the four played at least 12 years in the pros, were NBA all-stars and averaged double figures. However, Lofton stands above all of them as the greatest Tennessee basketball player ever.

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Yes, none of those four stand above Lofton and what he did. His individual accomplishments, his team success and his story are all unique, and it’s high time his jersey was retired.

Let’s not forget on an individual level that Lofton still holds the all-time SEC record for three-pointers made with 431. The closest to him is former Auburn Tigers guard Bryce Brown, who had 382.

Meanwhile, Lofton is fourth all time in career scoring for the Vols, and believe it or not, he’s third all time in steals, something he wasn’t known for doing. He was also a two-time All-American and 2007 SEC Player of the Year.

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Those accomplishments, though, don’t fully set him apart from the others. When you factor in team success, though, it becomes a lot more clear.

With Lofton as their leading scorer, the Vols achieved their first ever No. 1 ranking and 30-plus win season in 2007-08. They also won what remains their only outright SEC Regular Season title that year the past 55 seasons.

Add in three straight NCAA Tournaments and two straight Sweet 16 appearances, and Lofton clearly accomplished more than King, Ellis or Houston. Now, he’s not the most accomplished in team success, but he is among them.

Moments also stand out from Lofton’s team success. He hit a game-winner in the opening round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, and he famously dropped off Kevin Durant from 35 feet out for a go-ahead three-pointer the next year.

Ironically, Rick Barnes was coaching that Durant team, as he was playing for the Texas Longhorns. Lofton had 35 points in that one to lead Tennessee basketball from 16 down to win in overtime.

Beyond what he did on the court, though, Lofton is one of the greatest stories in UT history. He was not recruited by the Kentucky Wildcats despite being from there.

On top of that, according to Mike Wilson of USA TODAY Network, the only reason the Vols showed interest in Lofton is because John Winchester transferred. He was that unwanted.

Despite his elite shooting, Lofton’s lack of athleticism and lack of size (he’s listed at 6’2″ but appears much shorter) made too many coaches scared to touch him. The Vols took him by default.

A year later, after Buzz Peterson was fired and Bruce Pearl took over, Lofton emerged as the star behind a resurgent Tennessee basketball program. He torched Kentucky, most notably scoring 31 points at Rupp Arena in 2006 as the Vols won there.

Being an overlooked recruit, though, is not even the biggest story surrounding Lofton. Obviously, what he went through as a senior in 2007-08, the greatest season in Vols history, stands out even further.

Lofton battled testicular cancer that year. He didn’t tell the public as the whole season went on, and there was a noticeable drop in his game.

There were many reasons floated for the drop. One thought was he may have had trouble adjusting to the new-look program with transfer forward Tyler Smith being part of the offense. The other was that maybe the hype and pressure got to him a bit.

Nobody knew that the reason was due to him battling cancer. By the way, we talk about a drop, but he still led the team in scoring in 15.5 points per game and shot 38.4 percent from three. That’s how good he was before.

When you factor in Lofton’s background, accomplishments and team success, he doesn’t need any NBA career to validate what he did for Tennessee basketball. It’s clear he’s the greatest Vol ever, and he deserves all the praise.

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