Going into SEC conference play this year, Chris Lofton was shooting under 35% from the field and generally looking much more like the guy most scouts thought wouldn’t be much of a D1 scorer coming out of high school than the ’06-07 SEC Player of the Year. My friends and I — who in retrospect look like assholes, and not just because we were talking about Chris Lofton while our girlfriends were totally sitting right there making fun of us — pondered all kinds of reasons why this might be. Lack of athleticism? Better scouting by opposing coaches? Bruce Pearl’s loose-unto-nonexistent offensive scheme? Um, nope. Turns out, according to an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with ESPN.com (how did they get it? I thought The Entire Internet was Dedicated to Cruelty?), it was something significantly more…well, serious is the word that comes to mind.

[Lofton] was diagnosed with cancer only a few days after Tennessee ended its 2006-07 season with a Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State in San Antonio. Miraculously, the cancer was discovered after Lofton was picked randomly following the first-round win over Long Beach State to submit to an NCAA-mandated drug test. The results turned up positive, and Tennessee officials weren’t notified until the day of the Ohio State game.

What nobody knew at the time, at least for certain, was that what actually showed up on that test was a tumor marker. It’s a test that might have saved Lofton’s life. “I think it probably was a miracle because we don’t do any test here [at Tennessee] that would ever check that,” said Chad Newman, Tennessee’s head basketball trainer.

After blood work and then an ultrasound the next Monday, four days after the Ohio State game, revealed that Lofton indeed had cancer, secretive surgery was scheduled two days later on March 28 at UT Medical Center. The surgery was done early that morning, and Lofton’s name never appeared on the board at the hospital. His parents were discreetly taken into the hospital, and Pearl even came in semi-disguise.

Lofton, who had ended so many other teams’ dreams with one of his patented step-back 3-pointers, was about to embark on the fight of his life. “I’m not a guy who cries a whole lot around people,” said Lofton, who’s now cancer-free and as determined as ever to pursue a professional basketball career. “But I cried more this past year than I have my whole life combined. I cried a river this past year.” Amazingly, Lofton went through the entire ordeal — the surgery, radiation treatments, recovery and excruciating emotional distress — with very few people knowing.

That obviously includes me and my butthead friends. Lofton comes off as a pretty impressive kid in the piece, and Tennessee’s respectful handling of the whole thing stands in contrast to Pearl’s general (if genial) buffoonery (discussed here some time ago), and is, in retrospect, also pretty laudable. Especially when contrasted with the early days of the Tom Crean Administration at Indiana, where job one seems to be making sure that transferring forward Eli Holman won’t be playing for any Division I team anytime soon.