KNOXVILLE -- The Pilot Rocky Top Basketball League again has afforded future University of Tennessee basketball players a sneak peek at the competition they'll face at the college level.
Guard Trae Golden and wing Jordan McRae, two-thirds of UT's highly regarded signing class, have taken advantage of that opportunity and could help their teams advance to Thursday night's championship game.
Golden's Ray's ESG team and McRae's DeRoyal have been two of the league's top teams, and both four-star prospects have had plenty to do with that.
"Trae's been huge for us," said teammate and former UT All-America guard Chris Lofton.
"Jordan amazes me every time we get on the floor with how athletic he is, and how skilled he is," said DeRoyal teammate and Volunteers point guard Melvin Goins.
The two former Atlanta-area high school stars have had their moments in the wide-open, high-scoring league. Each has scored nearly 30 points in a game, and the 6-foot-6 McRae blocked nearly 10 shots one night.
Playing well in the Rocky Top League is far from a sure sign that one will succeed in the Southeastern Conference, but former Vols C.J. Watson, Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince, Dane Bradshaw and Lofton aren't YMCA-level players. Other successful college players from the past and present, including Goins and UT teammates Brian Williams, Kenny Hall, Skylar McBee and Steven Pearl, also add to the atmosphere.
Five-star New York forward Tobias Harris -- arguably the most highly decorated signee in UT history -- won't arrive in Knoxville until later this summer, but his future classmates have enjoyed their head starts.
"I absorb a lot just being in this league, and that's going to help me get better come October," said Golden, a 6-foot-1 combo guard. "How can you not get better while playing with guys like Chris Lofton?"
Lofton, Pearl, former College of Charleston point guard Tony White Jr. and former Eastern Michigan forward Boo Jackson have made Ray's a legitimate title contender, but DeRoyal is tied for first place thanks largely to the nucleus of Goins, Williams and the McRae.
"The upside of Jordan is incredible," Williams said. "He's a great athlete. He's slim, but he blocks shots like a powerful player. He works hard and asks questions like a veteran would do."
"I've already seen what he can do. Without him, we wouldn't be as good as we are. He's showing a lot of attributes to help us (UT) make another run like we did last year."
Different types of versatility have helped Golden and McRae contribute against mostly older players.
Golden has shown the typical traits of a solid combo guard who can handle the ball, shoot from the perimeter and find his way to the rim.
"He ain't that big, but he's a bull going to the hole," Williams said. "He's been working hard, and Melvin's taken him under his wing to become a point guard. That's good, because that's what we really need right now, a backup point guard."
McBee said Golden "is going to help us out tremendously.
"He shoots it well, but he's also got a quick first step, and he gets to the goal really good," added McBee, who has worked on ball-handling all summer in hopes of adding to UT's point guard competition. "And he's not just a good player; he's a good guy and a good teammate. He's somebody that's going to put a good name on Tennessee basketball."
Golden shares similar confidence in his game but admitted that his defense is a work in progress.
"As a young player, I was never really mindful (about defense), but you have to be mindful and just make sure that you stay in front of your man," he said. "You've got to make sure you know where your man's at, because everybody can score. This isn't like high school, where you can let your guy go and he's still going to miss the shot.
"My defense is getting there, and it's going to be there. I think I'm an all-around player and can do a little bit of everything, and I'm ready at all times to deliver."
Defense hasn't been an issue with McRae, despite a frame holding about 185 pounds.
"I like to get an impressive block just as much as I like to get an impressive dunk," he said minutes after accomplishing both feats in the same game. "I like to do it on both ends."
Added weight certainly wouldn't hurt him, though, and that's been McRae's main task this summer.
"I came here early for classes and weights, because I've got to hit the weights harder than anybody else," he said. "I'm trying to gain a whole lot of weight so I can play more. I grow every year, and it's really tough to gain weight, but I'm finally gaining some now. I want to put on 25 or 30 pounds. It's not going to be easy, but I think I can do it if I work hard."
Both newcomers chat with Harris several times per week -- often times with video, courtesy of Skype -- and the trio will start preseason practice hoping to earn significant playing time on a team that fell just short of last season's Final Four.
"We've already said we're going to the Final Four this year," McRae said. "There's no doubt in our minds. We're trying to win the SEC, get to the Final Four and get it done."
Added Golden: "Honestly, I feel like me, Tobias and Jordan will all have a pretty big role ... on a really good team."
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