Lofton Named SEC Player of the Year

ATLANTA (AP) - To Chris Lofton, the season feels like a roller coaster. It's certainly looking up heading into the Southeastern Conference tournament.

The Tennessee guard was named player of the year on The Associated Press All-SEC team released Tuesday, edging Derrick Byars of Vanderbilt.

Andy Kennedy earned coach of the year honors after leading Mississippi to its first winning season since 2002, while Arkansas freshman Patrick Beverley was an overwhelming choice as newcomer of the year.

Lofton defeated Byars by one vote in balloting by 12 members of a regional media panel, with South Carolina's Tre' Kelley and Florida's Al Horford also receiving consideration. Those four made the first team, joined by LSU forward Glen "Big Baby" Davis.

Lofton, a 6-foot-2 junior, leads the SEC in scoring (20.6 points per game) but it wasn't an entirely smooth season. He missed four games in late January and early February with a sprained right ankle.

"I started off pretty good. Then I got hurt, and I kind of felt down," he said. "I'm just happy right now and very excited."

Tennessee went 1-3 while Lofton was sidelined, but closed the regular season by winning seven of its last eight games after he returned.

"We were competitive without Chris ... but we couldn't win without him," coach Bruce Pearl said. "I think that speaks to why he's player of the year."

Lofton gave a special shout-out to trainer Chad Newman "for putting in a lot of extra hours, coming back early in the morning and late at night" to treat the sore ankle.

"I spent a lot of hours with him, especially during the first week," Lofton said from Knoxville, Tenn. "I basically lived here."

Lofton created more options by driving to the basket, instead of just settling for 3-pointers.

"I'm really happy for him because when you're hardest working player is also your best player, it really bodes well for your team," Pearl said. "He is just a difference-maker."

Kennedy made a big difference in his first year at Ole Miss, transforming the Rebels from plodding defensive stoppers to a fast-paced team that loves to run on offense and shut down opponents with traps and presses.

A Mississippi native, Kennedy served as interim coach at Cincinnati last season after Bob Huggins was forced out. He guided the Bearcats to a 21-13 record and the NIT quarterfinals, but the school hired Mick Cronin from Murray State as Huggins' permanent replacement.

Ole Miss quickly snatched up Kennedy to replace Rod Barnes, who
was fired after the program fell on hard times.

"I could not be more pleased the way things worked out for me," Kennedy said. "I'm a man who lives his life by faith, and I had faith that things would work out. They worked out beyond my wildest imagination."

The Rebels tied for first in the SEC West with state rival Mississippi State, beating out more touted teams such as Alabama and LSU.

"Honestly, I didn't know what this team was capable of," Kennedy said. "We had some success in SEC play and the guys started to believe that if we took the right approach, we could be successful, and that's a tribute to them. I've been really pleased with how receptive they've been with the change."

The balloting for coach of the year also was close, with Kennedy beating Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings 5-4. Pearl, Florida's Billy Donovan and Georgia's Dennis Felton received one vote each.

Beverley was an easy choice for newcomer of the year, picked on 10 of 12 ballots. The 6-1 guard has started all but one game for the Razorbacks and leads the team in scoring (14.3) and steals. His 3-point percentage (41.5) ranks sixth in the SEC, and he also averages 4.4 rebounds.

"He has been very consistent throughout the season," coach Stan Heath said. "Not only has be been able to score, but he rebounds the ball, has assists and defends very well. He is more than just a scorer."

Lofton and Davis were repeat selections to the 59th annual All-SEC team.

The Tennessee star is fourth in free-throw percentage (81.0), fifth in 3-point percentage (41.9) and seventh in field-goal percentage (48.1). He also ranks 11th in steals (1.37 a game).

Davis, a 6-9 junior, had another big season for LSU, even though the Tigers slumped badly after reaching the Final Four a year ago. He is the league's top rebounder (10.4) and third in scoring (17.8), doing it all on a team that finished last in the SEC West.

Byars nearly won the player of the year award after leading Vanderbilt to a second-place finish in the SEC East behind defending national champion Florida. The 6-7 senior swingman is fourth in scoring (16.9), ninth in both field-goal percentage (46.4) and 3-point percentage (36.8), and 10th in steals (1.4).

Horford, a 6-10 junior, stands out on a balanced Florida team. He averages 13.1 points, is the SEC's third-leading rebounder (8.9) and ranks sixth in blocked shots (1.93). He's also connecting on nearly 61 percent of his shots, second in the SEC to Alabama's Richard Hendrix.

Kelley is second in scoring (19.1), third in assists (5.1) and fifth in free-throw accuracy (80.3 percent). He's played more minutes than anyone else in the league, averaging 36.6 per game.

Hendrix leads the second team, which includes two more Florida players, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, along with Jamont Gordon of Mississippi State and Clarence Sanders of Ole Miss.

Noah slipped to the second unit after making the first team a year ago.

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