When you're hot, you're hot ... and no one in the Southeastern Conference is hotter than Tennessee's Jordan McRae these days.
Heading into tonight's game at Auburn he is coming off a five-game stretch which saw him shoot 53.5 percent from the field, 63.6 percent (21 of 33) from 3-point range and 84.0 percent from the foul line. He established career highs twice during that stretch — 34 points Feb. 19 against LSU, 35 points last Saturday at Georgia — and averaged 26.8 per game.
The obvious question: How many points will he score tonight?
No player can stay hot forever but McRae's chances of putting up big numbers this evening appear pretty good. For one thing, Auburn is a bad basketball team with a 200-plus RPI. For another thing, Tennessee players historically have career nights versus the Tigers.
Carl Widseth posted a program record 47 points in a 91-87 Tennessee win at Auburn on Feb. 25, 1956.
Tony White set a standard that stands to this day by hanging 51 points on Auburn in a 103-84 romp Feb. 14, 1987 at Stokely Athletics Center in Knoxville.
McRae's recent streak is not unprecedented. He posted five 20-point outings during a six-game stretch in January. With Trae Golden struggling, however, McRae moved to the point and promptly went into a four-game funk. He shot 2 for 10 from the field against Vanderbilt, 2 for 11 in a loss at Arkansas, 4 for 10 in a home loss to Georgia and 1 for 7 in a win at South Carolina.
Since returning to the wing, McRae has been virtually unstoppable. After struggling at Columbia, he went 6 of 14 (2 of 6 from 3) at Vanderbilt, 6 of 11 (1 of 1 from 3) in a 30-point blowout of Kentucky, 13 of 18 (6 of 6 from 3) against LSU, 8 of 22 (3 of 6 from 3) in a win at Texas A&M and 10 of 15 (8 of 11 from 3) in last Saturday's loss at Georgia.
Clearly, the 6-foot-5 junior is feeding off the confidence he has developed during his amazing sharpshooting exhibition.
"I'm definitely the kind of player that, if I hit one and I get some room, I'm going to try to hit two," he said. "If I hit two, the third one — if I get room — is definitely going up. That can be a good thing; sometimes it can be a bad thing."
In spite of his brilliance the past few weeks McRae remains humble and team-oriented. Asked how he felt during the dynamic performance in Athens, he somberly replied: "It's not really ... I mean, since we lost, I don't really look at it like that. It's all about trying to get wins."
One key to his recent scoring surge is improved shot selection. Head coach Cuonzo Martin said McRae once displayed a bad habit of shooting "a lot of leaners, looking for fouls." That rarely happens nowadays.
"He's 6-5 with a seven-foot wingspan," Martin noted. "I told him: 'Get to your spot on the floor and shoot your pull-up. If you can't get to the rim, not many guys are going to block your shot.' He's done a really good job with it."
He has done such a good job with it, in fact, that McRae is being touted by his coach for SEC Player of the Year recognition.
"I think he's doing a good job of taking what's given to him," Martin said. "He takes some tough shots, but even on the tough shots his shoulders are still square when he releases the ball. He's done a really good job of scoring in a variety of ways and he's put himself in position to win that award."
Naturally, McRae finds the Player of the Year talk enormously flattering.
"Of course, it would mean a lot to me," he said, "but at this point in the season I'm not really thinking about anything like that. I'm just trying to win out these last two games."
Although he played reasonably well during the pre-conference schedule, McRae has soared to a new level since conference play began. In 16 SEC games he has produced 20 or more points eight times, 25 or more five times and 30 or more twice. His average of 19.4 points per game in league action ranks fifth nationally among players in the NCAA's six "major" conferences.
Despite his recent roll, McRae generally is overshadowed by high-profile SEC guards such as Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Texas A&M's Elston Turner and Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson. When asked for his reaction, McRae shrugged.
"I don't really care," he said. "As long as we're winning games, at the end of the day that's all I really care about."
Because he cares more about winning than scoring, McRae actually feels a little guilty when circumstances dictate that he take over a game.
"I'm confident right now," he said, "but there will be times where I feel like I should pass because I've done shot the last two or three (possessions). That's just my nature. I don't want to take the credit for my scoring right now. My teammates are helping me out a lot."
That wasn't the case in Saturday's loss at Georgia, when he got virtually no help from his teammates. McRae scored more points (35) than the rest of the Vols combined (33).
Being a native of Midway, Ga., he was especially disappointed by the loss in Athens. Still, he was his usual upbeat self by Monday afternoon as he strolled along the baseline at Pratt Pavilion and prepared to warm up for Tennessee's first practice since the Georgia game.
Crossing under the basket at the south end of the court, he flipped the ball over his shoulder without slowing down or looking. The shot went in, barely disturbing the net.
When you're hot, you're hot.
GAME NOTES: McRae will be playing through a family tragedy tonight. A cousin was murdered earlier this week.... Tennessee brings a 17-11 overall record and a 9-7 SEC mark into the game. Auburn is 9-20 and 3-13.... The Vols are just 3-9 in their last dozen trips to Auburn, with the victories coming in 2001, 2003 and 2011.... Cuonzo Martin has 97 victories in five seasons as a head coach. He'll get No. 100 if the Vols get to 20 wins this season.... Tennessee beat Auburn 64-49 last season in Knoxville by limiting the Tigers to 30.4-percent shooting and dominating the backboards 53-30.... Tonight's game tips off at 8:05 Central (9:05 Eastern) with television coverage provided by CSS.