Tennessee sophomore Jordan McRae was in a giving mood Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
He gave the Vols a lift, gave the Auburn Tigers matchup problems and gave Big Orange fans a glimpse of his remarkable athleticism. All of that giving helped Tennessee take home a comfortable 64-49 victory.
Blessed with a 6-foot-5 frame and an amazing 7-foot wingspan, the rangy guard hit 4 of 7 field-goal tries, scored 11 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, blocked 2 shots and dished out an assist during a 25-minute relief stint. Basically, he gave Vol fans a peek at the explosive potential he showed in averaging a mind-boggling 45.7 points per game in the Rocky Top League last summer.
"I'm getting extra work before practice and after practice," McRae said. "I'm just doing everything I can to be the best I can be."
Benched after starting the season's first 14 games, he all but disappeared over the last two weeks — producing more fouls (8) and turnovers (5) than points (4) during a four-game span. Though highly emotional, he insists he took the demotion in stride.
"If you start, you start," McRae said. "Everything will fall into place. If you're a good player it will show. Right now I just want to do everything I can to help my team."
Including play defense, a skill he is still struggling to acquire. When he signed with offensive-minded Bruce Pearl out of high school, McRae never dreamed he'd be playing his second college season for defensive-minded Cuonzo Martin.
"We work on defense about 60 percent of the time," McRae said. "It's a lot different playing for a defensive-minded coach like that who's going to pound defense into your head. It's different but defense wins games, so you got to do what you got to do."
Clearly, defense is something Jordan McRae has got to do if he's going to play significant minutes under the current coaching regime.
"He keeps working and brings his hard hat," Martin said. "He has the mentality to score the ball but for him (the key) is to continue to get better on both ends of the floor."
Although the lessons are hard, McRae concedes that learning to play defense is making him a more well-rounded player.
"Coach Martin is a great coach for me because he's teaching me that you have to be great at both ends of the court ... not just one end," McRae said. "I feel like I've made great strides but I've got a long way to keep going with that. Fighting through screens is my biggest problem but I feel I'm doing a lot better job with that."
After scarcely seeing the floor as a freshman in 2010-11, McRae won a starting job with a strong preseason last fall. He seemed to be blossoming into a star when he posted back-to-back 25-point performances in Game 5 versus Chaminade and Game 6 at Oakland — draining 16 of 29 shots from the field, 8 of 15 from 3 and 10 of 11 from the foul line in the two games combined.
Turnovers and defensive lapses cost him his starting job as SEC play began, however, then severely reduced his minutes. He played just 11 versus Kentucky in Game 17, 10 each versus Georgia and UConn in Games 18 and 19, then a season-low 8 minutes against Vanderbilt in Game 20 Tuesday night.
Message-board cynics began calling him "a Rocky Top League legend" and suggesting that he lacks the self control to fit into the more structured college game. McRae seemed to fit in pretty nicely Saturday evening, however.
Tennessee made just 4 of its first 18 field-goal tries and trailed 12-13 midway through the first half. Enter McRae, who scored on a nifty drive to give the Vols the lead for good, then added an acrobatic driving 5-footer to help finish off an 18-3 explosion that produced a 30-16 halftime lead.
He came off the bench early in the second half to drain a 12-foot baseline jumper and a 3-pointer as Tennessee widened the gap to 15 points (42-27). The bulge peaked at 20 points (64-44) with 1:07 remaining.
The Vols, now 10-11 overall and 2-4 in SEC play, dominated the backboards 53-30 in posting the 1,500th win in program history. Auburn slips to 12-9 and 2-5.
Tennessee won handily despite shooting just 34.5 percent from the field and 20.0 percent (4 of 20) from 3-point range. With Auburn's zone defense collapsing on Vol big men Jeronne Maymon (15 points, 19 rebounds) and Jarnell Stokes (11 points), most of Tennessee's 3-point tries were wide-open looks.
"That's the hardest shot to hit ... when you're wide open like that," said McRae, who was 1 for 3 beyond the arc and is shooting a solid 35.5 percent from 3 for the season.
Because Tennessee limited Auburn to 24.0-percent shooting (6 of 25) in the first half, the Vols got a lot of transition opportunities. That played to the strength of McRae, who is difficult to stop in the open floor.
"It definitely does," he said. "When we were pushing in the first half that really got everybody going. Our defense leads to offense, so when we play defense it leads to shots."
Packing just 179 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame, McRae still struggles to fight through screens on defense. Fortunately for him, his quickness, long arms and leaping ability often enable him to recover after losing his man.
"I'm constantly working on my defense, trying to get back to where I can stay on the floor and help the team win," he said. "I got beat back-door tonight but I was able to recover and block the shot because my arms are so long and I'm athletic."
McRae showed Tennessee fans just how athletic Saturday night. It wasn't a full screening but it was an intriguing glimpse.