KNOXVILLE — Jordan McRae flashed a smile.
The mere mention of the Tennessee basketball wing's scoring ability prompted such a response.
"I don't think that's going anywhere," he said before the Volunteers' practice Monday afternoon. "That's always going to be there."
It's what else is there now that might be making a bigger impact for McRae and UT.
The sophomore's scoring talents have never been in doubt, but the other areas of his game have caused him some struggles this season. McRae played his way out of a midseason lull, which has allowed him to carve out a nice role off the bench. The key to some of the success has been improvements in rebounding, defense and intensity.
"I feel like I'm starting to become more of a complete player," said the wiry 6-foot-6 Georgian, who will try to continue his recent solid play when the Vols host Arkansas tonight. "I should always get more rebounds with me being as tall and athletic as I am. Just playing defense, that's something that goes along with the game that should be done."
In UT's last five games, McRae has had two six-rebound games and one five-board game. The six-rebound performances against Auburn and Florida set and tied his career high.
After scoring 10 points in his first game off the bench against Florida on Jan. 7, McRae scored just nine points in the next five games as his minutes dwindled. He played just eight minutes in the loss at Vanderbilt and only six in the loss at Kentucky and didn't score in either game.
Even including that scoreless game in Lexington, McRae has averaged nine points in his last five. He's averaging 11 points in nearly 23 minutes in the Vols' current three-game win streak.
"I think more than anything it's just making a commitment to do what's asked and be a part of a successful team and wanting to be successful," coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I wasn't wavering in my approach, and I think it's a credit to Jordan McRae to understand in order for him to be successful and our team to be successful, these are the things that are required in order for us to push forward. He's done a great job with that.
"He's taking charges, but if you watch his approach in practice, it's at another level. He's attacking the rim, and he got a couple of dunks last game because he's being more aggressive. He's not thinking about it."
McRae averaged 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four blocks a game as a senior at Hinesville's Liberty County High School. His length, quickness and jumping ability all contribute to his ability to score in a variety of ways. He can slash to the rim and get to the free-throw line, where he's shooting 82 percent this season, and he can score from behind the 3-point line, where he's been 6-of-13 in his last three games.
But what ultimately lost him his starting job in January was his defense. Martin elected to start freshman Josh Richardson, who's one of the Vols' top perimeter defenders. Skylar McBee's shooting and defense earned him the Vols' starting shooting guard spot two games ago.
"Playing defense," McRae said, "it isn't hard. It's just a pride thing."
The Vols have had some success with McRae on the floor. When he played the final 16 minutes in the win against Georgia, UT outscored the Bulldogs by 18 points. He was on the floor for the run at Florida when UT built a double-digit lead in the first half.
"We didn't run one play for him and he scored 14 points," Martin said. "Because of his spacing and his approach, he's able to score the ball."
Which certainly makes McRae smile.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...