Saluting the seniors

Tennessee's basketball future is bright, thanks to four highly regarded November signees. Tennessee's basketball present is bright, too, thanks to three not-so-highly regarded seniors. They make their final home appearance tonight at 8 against Kentucky.

C.J. Watson showed up on a few preseason All-SEC teams but fellow seniors Andre Patterson and Stanley Asumnu couldn't have been more anonymous last November if they'd entered the Federal Witness Protection program. Still, these three upperclassmen have played key roles in the Vols' unlikely run to a 20-5 record, an SEC East title and a No. 11 national ranking.

Watson, a 6-2 point guard, has started all 25 games at the point, averaging 15.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. He has shot 47.2 percent from the field and a strong 42.9 percent from 3-point range. He ranks second among all SEC players in steals (2.12 per game) and third in free throw percentage (87.5).

Patterson, a 6-7 forward, has significantly upgraded UT's frontline since joining the starting lineup in Game 16. He led all Vol rebounders in eight of the 10 games since then. He has posted four double-doubles and his 6.5 rebound average leads Tennessee and ranks 10th in the SEC.

Asumnu, a 6-5 wing, showed class after losing his first-team job to Patterson at midseason and has become a significant contributor off the bench. Four of his 11 double-figure scoring efforts have occurred since he was demoted.

Head coach Bruce Pearl says his three seniors deserve a lot of credit for the success of this year's team, noting that Patterson in particular has come of age this winter.

"Andre was a guy that had step-up ability," the coach said. "Out of all our players, I felt like Andre had more to give. He has stepped up. He's still an undersized player in the SEC but he's our best rebounder, one of our best inside scorers and a guy that's able to take the ball to the basket and break defenses down. Andre's improved, inspired, emotional play has made a big difference in our ability to continue to play good basketball this season coming down the stretch."

Before he won his coach's confidence, however, Patterson incurred his coach's wrath with a preseason disciplinary infraction that got him suspended. After serving his time, he rejoined the team with a new sense of purpose.

"I feel closer to Andre as the season has progressed," Pearl said. "I had (to instill) a lot of discipline, a lot of tough love early. Andre's ability to step up athletically with his performance and experience has gone a long way in helping us to win basketball games."

Asumnu has flourished in Pearl's uptempo offense, boosting his scoring average from 2.4 last year to 8.6 this year, while boosting his shooting percentage from 39.1 to 51.6. He also has excelled in UT's full-court pressure defense.

"Stanley Asumnu is a really good player in transition," Pearl said. "He's very productive finishing in transition and defensively. When we extend, he's able to use his athleticism and make plays. I'm really happy for Stanley that in his senior year he's been a real solid contributor."

Although Watson started three previous seasons, he has blossomed into one of the SEC's premier players in his final season.

"He's the Quiet Storm. I call him the Perfect Storm," Pearl said. "He just does it all for us. He's logged a lot of minutes. This league has the best point-guard play in college basketball, so C.J. has got to bring it every single night. He has on almost all occasions.

"He will go down as one of the best point guards in the history of Tennessee basketball, especially now that he's got a championship. That'll add credibility to his legacy."

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