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VFL C.J. Watson sees Tennessee Vols going all the way

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When Buzz Peterson was recruiting CJ Watson, he ran into a dead end. Literally.

The former Tennessee basketball coach was in Las Vegas with assistant Kerry Keating, making a home visit to see Watson.

They got lost, drove down a barren road with no houses and came to a dead end, facing a dumpster.

Keating called Watson’s Dad, Charles, for directions and they not only made it to Watson’s house, but landed the blue-chip point guard.

Tennessee was helped by the fact that Watson’s parents are from Nashville and Murfreesboro and that his grandmother still lived in Nashville.

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His grandmother, Mary Louise Watson, has a street named after her in Nashville. She was one of six girls to desegregate schools and also endured bomb threats and threats to kidnap her kids.

When CJ visited Nashville as a youth, he was unimpressed with the state of Tennessee.

“I never really liked Tennessee when we made summer visits,” Watson told the Big Orange Tipoff Club recently. “I’m a city kid from Vegas. So I never really liked the country, honestly. It was culture shock.”

Still, Peterson and Keating sold him on helping rebuild the Vols’ program.

Would Watson have come to Tennessee without the family connection to the state?

“Maybe not,” Watson said.

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Watson developed into one of UT’s great point guards. He finished his career No. 2 on the assists and steals list and No. 20 on the scoring list. He averaged 9.1 points as a freshman and made the SEC All-Freshman team. He then averaged 11.5 points and 11.9 points.

But none of his teams made the NCAA Tournament. Peterson was fired and UT hired the dynamic Bruce Pearl.

Watson thought about turning pro, but Pearl convinced him he would thrive in Pearl’s system.

“I had a meeting with Bruce,’’ Watson said. “He convinced me to come back. Everyone knows Bruce is a salesman. He told me his offense would be better for me.’’

Pearl was right. Watson averaged 15.3 points per game and teamed with sharp-shooting Chris Lofton to lead Tennessee to a 22-8 record and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament – a program best.

What led to Watson’s scoring jump?

“Bruce Pearl,” Watson said.

In the seventh game that season, the Vols upset No. 6 Texas in Austin 95-78.

“That was probably the biggest win of the year,” Watson said. “That was one no one thought we could win. It was the start of something special.”

Later that season, UT won at Florida in a game in which Watson elbowed Gator star center Joakim Noah and knocked out his tooth. The two became teammates years later with the Bulls.

Watson said garnering a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament was “pretty cool. All the things Bruce came in and projected, the confidence he instilled, came to fruition.”

Watson has a low-key personality. He has a tattoo on his arm that says, “Quiet Storm,” a nickname given to him by his sister because he was calm off the court but his game hit you like a storm – especially in high school.

He led Bishop Gorman to two state championships and was a two-time Nevada state Gatorade Player of the Year. He was the first person at Bishop Gorman to have his jersey (32) retired, a feat later accomplished by his younger brother after his team also won state.

Peterson tried to push Watson’s buttons to be a more vocal leader.

“I didn’t like Buzz because he sent me to a leadership camp,” Watson said.

Pearl told Watson not to stress about being a leader, that Pearl would take those reigns. Pearl did, freeing up Watson to just play ball.

Watson played with Lofton, UT’s all-time leading 3-point shooter. When did Watson know Lofton was a terrific long-ball threat?

“Summer workouts,” Watson said. “He made me a better player because I knew when I passed to him, nine out of 10 times, it was going in.”

Watson’s freshman year, he played with Ron Slay, who averaged 21.2 points and earned SEC Player of the Year honors.

“Playing with Slay, when he wants the ball, you better give it to him,’’ Watson said. “(If not) he would yell at me. He would tell me, `You little punk freshman, give me the ball!’”

Watson had a decent pro career. He played in 600 NBA games, starting 104. He played for Golden State, Chicago, Brooklyn, Indiana and Orlanda. He started a playoff series for the Bulls.

He had 40 points in one NBA game, 33 in another.

He played several years overseas.

Watson is the father of three girls. Ayanna, is a star volleyball player who is being recruited by Tennessee. She was the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year.

Watson has a foundation that benefits young basketball players and also writes children’s books.

While Watson hasn’t been to many games at Thompson-Boling Arena over the past 15 years, he loves this team, and complimented the play of swingman Dalton Knecht and point guard Zakai Ziegler, among others.

“I think they’ll win it all,” he said. “Not just get to the Final Four, but win the championship.”

If so, it would be the first in program history.

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