It took three-plus seasons but Jordan McRae finally has become what Tennessee coaches, teammates and fans envisioned when he arrived on campus as a freshman …
A complete player.
Big Orange supporters can see for themselves tonight at 6:05, when McRae and the red-hot Vols (10-4 overall, 1-0 SEC) face Texas A&M (also 10-4, 1-0) at Thompson-Boling Arena. Fox Sports Net has the telecast.
After proving himself to be a dynamic scorer and shot-blocker his first three seasons on campus, McRae recently expanded his game to include distributing and defending. The difference in him is dramatic. So is the difference in Tennessee.
The 6-foot-6, 185-pound McRae played one of his worst games ever in a 65-58 home loss to North Carolina State on Dec. 18, going 6 for 22 from the field and nearly fouling out. That must have been a turning point, however, because he has blossomed into one of the NCAA’s premier players since then. Over the past four games he has dished out 17 assists, an average of 4.3 per contest. He has begun using his athleticism and 7-foot wingspan to prevent baskets, as well as make them. And he has become incredibly efficient as a scorer, draining 22 of 34 field-goal tries (9 of 14 from 3) and 15 of 16 foul shots in sparking a four-game Vol winning streak.
No longer just an electrifying scorer, McRae seems to have become a complete player.
“I think he’s become that, really,” head coach Cuonzo Martin conceded. “Defensively, I used to be very hesitant to put him on key guys. We used to scheme to try and not have him on certain guys.”
McRae has the length and athleticism to be a quality defender, a point Martin drove home at every opportunity. The player finally took the sermon to heart and began improving his defensive skills.
“More than anything, I think it’s ‘I want to get Coach off my back, so I might as well do it,’” Martin said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing.”
McRae’s first big test came in Game 12 against Virginia, when he eagerly accepted the assignment of guarding the Cavaliers’ leading scorer.
“It was a case where we couldn’t hide him (on defense),” Martin said, adding that Virginia’s Joe Harris “was the guy I was most concerned with because of how he moves. But I thought Jordan did a tremendous job of guarding him.”
Apparently so. Harris went 2 of 9 from the field and scored just 7 points that night. Martin again praised McRae’s defense after defeats of Tusculum and LSU in Games 13 and 14. McRae doesn’t mask his surprise.
“I’m just trying to guard my man,” the player said, smiling sheepishly before adding: “If Coach Martin is talking about my defense being good, I must be doing something right.”
In addition to playing harder on defense, McRae has been playing smarter on offense. No longer forcing low-percentage shots, he is doing a terrific job of drawing defenders and creating open looks for his teammates.
“I’m just trying to find my shots when I’m open and throw it to them when I’m not open,” he said. “All of the guards are doing a good job of finding each other when we’re open and hitting shots…. Josh (Richardson) and Antonio (Barton) are doing a great job of knocking down shots.”
Indeed. Barton (11 of 18) and Richardson (4 of 6) have been smoking from 3-point range over the past three games
“When guys are hitting shots like that,” McRae said, “you’ve got to make sure you find ‘em.”
Averaging 18.9 points per game, McRae is a marked man who gets a lot of attention from opposing defenses. Thus, deciding when to create his own shot and when to create one for a teammate is critical.
“He knows he’s not going to get a lot of clean looks, so sometimes he’s having to take tough shots,” Martin said. “It’s also a case of him attacking with two guys on him, then finding (teammates) and making plays. He does a good job of getting assists in transition.”
Still, the coach wants McRae to remain mindful of why he’s in the lineup.
“I don’t want him to look to get assists; I want him to look to score,” Martin said. “He’s done a good job of getting assists because of how teams are defending him; he’s making good decisions with the ball. But I don’t want him out there trying to get 10 assists per game. That’s not his job. He’s built to score the ball, and he needs to do that.”
That’s especially true in late-game situations, when McRae’s experience and creativity are invaluable. As Martin put it: “Jordan is our guy to go to down the stretch when you want a basket.”
Whether he’s shooting, assisting or defending, McRae is helping the Vols play up to their potential over the past two weeks. He notes one simple explanation for the team’s four-game winning streak.
“We’re getting off to fast starts,” he said. “Everybody’s going out there with a lot of energy and we’re not playing from behind, which is very hard to do.”
Opening the past four games with energy has enabled the Vols to finish the past four games with wins. Shell-shocked after a 6-4 start, they now find themselves relaxed and confident.
“Man, the mood is good. (Everybody’s) smiling and laughing,” McRae said. “The mood’s always good when you’re winning. When you’re losing … not so much.”
The mood is especially good coming off Tuesday night’s 68-50 beat-down of LSU. Winning the SEC opener provides a boost, especially since it was a road game.
“It definitely feels good to get that first road win out of the way in this month rather than in February,” McRae said. “We were allowed to laugh and talk on the plane, so it was a good feeling.”
Especially for a guy who suddenly has evolved into a complete player.