McRae making a move

McRae making a move

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Tennessee basketball fans have waited nearly two years to see why Jordan McRae created such a buzz when he arrived on campus. Teammates and media types raved about his athleticism. Former Vol aide Tony Jones labeled him a future NBA player.

Perhaps the wait is over. The talented sophomore led in points (14) and blocks (3) Wednesday against Arkansas, while ranking second in assists (4). It was the kind of all-around performance fans have been hoping for since he came to Knoxville from Midway, Ga., 18 months ago.

"It was just a matter of time for Jordan, just getting his head right and feeling out the offense," junior forward Jeronne Maymon said this week. "It was just a matter of time. Jordan can score with the best of them. We were just waiting on him to come along."

With Tennessee (14-12 overall, 6-5 SEC) fighting for its post-season life heading into today's 12:30 Central Time (1:30 Eastern) tipoff at Alabama, McRae couldn't be picking a better time to display the brilliance some have been predicting for him since his arrival on The Hill.

The 6-foot-5, 179-pounder showed flashes of that brilliance when he posted back-to-back 25-point scoring efforts in Game 5 against Chaminade and Game 6 at Oakland back in November. Despite a 7-foot wingspan and superior agility, however, he was a one-trick pony -- a scorer who contributed little in other areas of the game. That's why he lost his starting job after 14 games.

"I definitely don't want to be a player that can only do one thing," he said this week. "With the shooters on our team, and Jeronne (Maymon) and Jarnell (Stokes) who are good around the basket, you definitely need to get those guys the ball."

Realizing his minutes would be limited until he improved his ball-handling, passing and defense, McRae worked diligently in practice the past few weeks to become a more well-rounded player. That work is paying dividends. During the Vols' current four-game winning streak he has hit 50 percent (16 of 32) from the field and 42.1 percent (8 of 19) from 3 en route to averaging 12.0 points per game. He also contributed 15 rebounds, 10 assists, 5 blocked shots and 2 steals during that four-game stretch.

"He has the ability to score the ball but he's working hard in practice now, and you're starting to see he results," head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "When you put the work in in practice it's a little easier in the game. He's taking pride on the defensive end but he's still got about 50 percent to go on that side of the ball."

Because McRae is an emotional guy, many observers wondered if he'd react in a negative manner after losing his starting job. He hasn't. He even seems to relish his new role as sixth man.

"I kind of like coming off the bench now," he said. "It's cool. It gives me a chance to see what's going on, see what the man I'm going to be guarding is doing."

Even coming off the bench, McRae has played an average of 25.5 minutes per contest during Tennessee's four-game winning streak. He's getting the minutes because he's getting the job done.

"I definitely feel like I'm playing my best," he said. "We're winning games, so there's nothing else you can ask for."

McRae admits that he has grown up in a lot of ways since this season began.

"I think I'm still playing with the same confidence but I'm playing a lot smarter than I was at the beginning of the season," he said. "I'm picking my shots better, finding my teammates and playing defense a lot better than I was."

With junior center Kenny Hall suspended indefinitely, McRae was part of a four-guard lineup Tennessee utilized for much of Wednesday's 77-58 defeat of Arkansas. He thinks it will create matchup problems for a lot of upcoming foes.

"It makes it real difficult because you've got to guard everywhere," he said. "You don't have two players in the post, so it keeps the court open for driving lanes. Then if somebody (on defense) helps, you kick it out to the shooters."

NOTES: JaMychal Green, 6-foot-8 post who leads Alabama in scoring (14.1 points per game), rebounding (7.2 per game) and field-goal percentage (54.9), is expected to miss today's game as he continues serving an indefinite suspension. Ditto for Tony Mitchell, a 6-foot-6 forward who burned Tennessee for 24 points as the Tide prevailed 65-60 in overtime last February in Knoxville.... Bama brings a 16-9 overall record and a 5-6 SEC mark into today's game. Tennessee is 14-12 and 6-5.... Alabama has beaten Tennessee in 17 of the past 20 meetings at Tuscaloosa, including 13 times in a row from 1982-96.... Counting SEC Tournament games, Buzz Peterson went 0-6 versus the Tide in his tenure as Tennessee's head coach. Successor Bruce Pearl went 4-3 against Bama, winning at Tuscaloosa in 2008 and 2010.... Today's game will be televised by the SEC Network.

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