Personally, I feel like I'm still living in an extended version of the 90s...but either way, as the decade that we never quite figured out what to call in the first place comes to a close, we take a look back at Tennessee Basketball from 2000-2009, and begin selecting our All-Decade team.
Along the way, we'll give you a chance to vote for each starting position...except Chris Lofton's, who like Eric Berry has the only guaranteed spot on our depth chart. But at each of the other four starting positions, you can make a case for more than one player, and we'll allow you the reader to settle the score. Polls will stay open for a week, and at the conclusion of this series we'll reveal our 12-man squad and the 5 starters for Tennessee Basketball's All-Decade Team.
The 00's (see what I mean) were quite kind to the men's program, arguably the most successful decade in Tennessee Basketball history. It seems strange when you consider that three different coaches graced the sidelines in the last ten years, but the Vols made six trips to the NCAA Tournament and two more to the NIT, had two players win SEC Player of the Year awards, and advanced to the Sweet 16 three times, which before this decade had never been done before since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
In breaking down the individual talent, we begin today at point guard, where we'll find the conversation quickly comes to two players: Tony Harris and CJ Watson. We break down their contributions to Tennessee Basketball...
At the beginning of the decade, the Vols had made consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and a core group of players - Tony Harris, Vincent Yarbrough, Isaiah Victor and CJ Black - had been leading the charge under Jerry Green's watch. In 2000, the Vols shared an SEC Championship and advanced to the Sweet 16, beating defending National Champion UConn in the second round 4-5 matchup. This was the first time the Vols had ever won two games in the NCAA Tournament.
Tony Harris (1998-2001) was the sparkplug of this offense, starting from day one on campus. The Memphis native had his best year in 2000, averaging 14.6 points and 4.1 assists per contest, while shooting 37.8% from the three point line.
Harris came up big in several big games for the Vols, including a slashing to-the-rim layup as the buzzer sounded to send a game with Florida to overtime in Knoxville in 2000, and the Vols would eventually win. He also outplayed Khalid El-Amin in the NCAA Tournament.
When the Vols went downhill fast in 2001 - a 16-1 start and #4 ranking that turned into a 2-8 slide and an eventual first round exit in the NCAA Tournament - Harris took much of the blame that wasn't directly squarely at Jerry Green. Previously in his career, Harris was injured and did not play in a big contest in Knoxville. But when a skirmish broke out near the opposing bench, Harris had enough strength to fight off two assistant coaches and join the fray. The late Gary Lundy called him a "punk" in a News-Sentinel article, prompting a press conference from then-AD Doug Dickey to defend his player. Last June, The Bruce Ball Blog wrote an excellent piece on Harris, both showing where he is now, and offering an apology for some of the hate.
CJ Watson (2003-2006) is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Tony Harris. The "Quiet Storm" played three years under Buzz Peterson before finishing his career with Bruce Pearl. The Nevada native was instantly recognized as a talent by Pearl, who said early on he felt like he could get Watson in the NBA.
Watson, calm, quiet and collected, also started all four seasons in Knoxville - in fact, he led the conference in minutes played as a true freshman. Playing under Peterson's slower pace and with Brandon Crump and Scooter McFadgon, Watson averaged 5+ asissts per game in each of his first three seasons, and finished first, second, and first in the SEC in assists per game under Peterson. When Pearl arrived and upped the tempo, Watson became even more of a scoring threat, adding four points to his career average with a 15.3 PPG season, and enjoying his best season from behind the arc (42.2%) and the free throw line (87.8%).
Watson is one of the success stories of the NBA's D-League, rising to fame the hard way before joining Golden State, where he currently averages 8 points in 23 minutes per night.
Both players were involved in taking the program to new heights. Harris was the point man for Jerry Green, made four NCAA Tournaments in four years and got the Vols to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever. Watson was the point man for the program's resurrection in Pearl's first season, and helped the team take their first steps to the greater success and recognition they now enjoy, while Watson continues his own career in the NBA.
A side-by-side career stat comparison (all the cool kids use statsheet.com for research on this piece)
- Tony Harris: 13.1 PPG, 37.8 FG%, 36.1 3PT%, 75.6 FT%, 2.4 rebs, 4.2 assists, 1.4 A/TO ratio, 1.2 steals per game
- CJ Watson: 12.0 PPG, 43.2 FG%, 39.6 3PT%, 77.7 FT%, 3.7 rebs, 4.8 assists, 1.8 A/TO ratio, 1.7 steals per game
Harris scored more points, but Watson became a more complete player (and, you could argue, did it with significantly less talent around him). However, Harris enjoyed much more team success as a player - Watson was only around for Year One of Pearl's era, though he did play in two NIT Tournaments under Peterson. Tony Harris was first-team All-SEC in 2000, Watson was second-team in 2006.
Other Point Guards 2000-2009
- Thadeyus Holden and Jennis Grindstaff split point guard duties in 2002, both averaging just over 6 points per game in Buzz Peterson's initial season.
- Ramar Smith ran the show in 2007 and 2008 under Bruce Pearl, being named to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2007 and leading two teams to the Sweet 16 in addition to an SEC Championship in 2008. Smith averaged 7 points per game, and was occasionally spelled by Jordan Howell.
- Bobby Maze stepped in when Smith was dismissed this season, helping the Vols to an SEC East Championship with 8 points per game.
In the end, Harris and Watson stand above the rest (who were all serviceable at the very least), each being responsible for great strides in the program with similar on-court contributions with completely different styles. Harris may have rubbed many fans the wrong way, fairly or no, but was a better scorer and won more games. Watson quietly built a more complete resume, played his way into the NBA, and was in on the ground floor of Bruce Pearl's resurrection project. And again, both were the point men as the program ascended to new heights.
So, who gets your vote as Point Guard of the Decade?