Any gas in the tank?

Tennessee's basketball team is cruising along toward an SEC East title, and senior point guard C.J. Watson is the guy with his foot on the accelerator. The question is: Does the Vol Express have enough gas to reach the finish line?

That's a valid question because Watson was running on fumes near the end of his previous three college seasons. Consider:

After playing 39 minutes against Alabama in Game 23 of his freshman season, Watson followed with a 7-turnover effort in Game 24 against Kentucky. He sank just 1 of 9 shots in a 40-minute outing in Game 28 vs. Auburn, then closed his rookie year with a 5-turnover performance vs. Georgetown in a first-round NIT loss.

As a sophomore, Watson struggled mightily in the final three contests – committing 4 turnovers vs. South Carolina in Game 27, shooting 1 of 6 vs. Alabama in Game 28, then recording 5 turnovers and zero assists against George Mason in another first-round NIT setback.

Last season Watson lost his stroke near season's end, hitting just 2 of 9 shots (with 6 turnovers) in Game 26 vs. South Carolina, 2 of 10 in Game 27 vs. Arkansas and 2 of 11 (with 5 turnovers) in Game 28 vs. Kentucky. He attempted just seven shots in Games 29 and 30 combined, then inexplicably closed with a season-high 26 points in a second-round SEC Tournament loss to Kentucky.

Watson's late-season difficulties the past three years were reflected in the Vols' won-lost records. With him struggling, Tennessee dropped six of its last eight games in 2002-03, five of its last seven in 2003-04 and six of its last nine in 2004-05.

With the 2005-06 Vols nearing the stretch run, you have to wonder: Is there any gas left in the tank this time?

"We have a lot of gas left," Watson said. "Coach does a great job subbing us in and out, making sure we get our rest. I think that's the main point."

Certainly, first-year coach Bruce Pearl has tried to keep his star point guard rested this season. After averaging 35.8, 33.9 and 34.9 minutes per game in his three seasons under Buzz Peterson, Watson has played just 31.3 minutes per game this season. The solid play of backup point guard Jordan Howell has allowed Watson to stay fresher than in previous seasons.

"I have a lot of confidence in Jordan," Watson said. "I think everybody's very confident. When I come out I know he's going to take care of the ball, handle the pressure and make shots."

With fresher legs than he had the previous three seasons, perhaps C.J. Watson will take care of the ball, handle pressure and make shots down the stretch better than he has in years past. If so, the Vol Express may still be chugging along well into March.

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