Tennessee guard Jordan McRae shoots over a Vanderbilt guard in their meeting last year. He hopes to continue a hot streak when they meet again tonight. “I’ve been working out a lot more, just consistently working on my shot. My teammates are doing a good job of finding me open shots."Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
KNOXVILLE — Jordan McRae's driving one-handed tomahawk slam against unbeaten Wichita State in December was nominated for one play-of-the-year contest earlier this week.
Lately, though, Tennessee's top scorer has relied more on his jump shot.
Following a 1-of-15 shooting performance in a 26-point loss at Florida that was possibly the worst offensive showing of his career, the senior guard hit 11 3-pointers in the Volunteers' wire-to-wire wins against Ole Miss and Alabama last week, and McRae will look to continue his hot streak when Tennessee visits Vanderbilt tonight.
"I'm getting good looks," McRae said Tuesday afternoon as the Vols boarded the bus to Nashville, where they would practice later in the evening. "I've been working out a lot more, just consistently working on my shot. My teammates are doing a good job of finding me open shots."
With freshman Darius Thompson starting at point guard, McRae scored 26 points in each of Tennessee's past two games following that five-point clunker in Gainesville, and he did most of his damage from distance against 2-3 zone defenses.
McRae hit six 3s against Ole Miss, including four during one second-half stretch as the Vols pulled away, and added four against Alabama. He's shooting 38.4 percent from 3-point range this season, up from 35.5 percent last season. McRae had seven games with three or more 3s all of last season, but he's already nine such games in Tennessee's 21 games this season.
"I think he's really improved," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "He's a better catch-and-shoot guy than he gets credit for ... when he allows himself to be, because I think he wants to put the ball on the floor and make plays."
Despite missing his first four shots at Alabama, including a trio of 3s, McRae told reporters after Tennessee's 76-59 win that Martin told him if he passed up any more open perimeter shots he'd end up on the bench.
"He knows he's going to shoot the ball, and that's his job to shoot it," Martin said Monday. "Just like those games I've talked about, what happens is if he misses a couple, now he wants to drive, and he's hanging in the air and he's off-balance, as opposed to one or two dribbles, catching and shooting.
"I just said, 'The 3-point shot is there. You still have to take it; you've got to take that shot. It's presenting itself -- take the shot.' He did a good job with that. You can't pass up opportunities, because if you continue to pass them up, now the lane gets smaller for the big guys to operate."
Since a dreadful 1-of-19 performance from beyond the arc at Florida, Tennessee made 20 of 40 3s and shot 9-of-20 at Alabama despite entering the game shooting just 23 percent from distance in SEC road games.
McRae and Josh Richardson hit 18 of those triples, and Richardson, who's shooting 42 percent on 3s this season after hitting at a 22.5-percent clip his first two seasons at Tennessee, made a couple of long-range shots early in both games.
"Even though he's shooting a high clip at the 3-point line," Martin said of Richardson, "I think opposing teams probably figure as they start the game, let's try to give him shots and see if he can make shots early.
"When he's making shots early, his game goes to another level, and my hopes as a coach is [that] he's not fazed whether he's making or missing shots and staying aggressive."
McRae earned the reputation as a slasher who was at his best driving to the basket early in his career, and while the wiry, athletic wing still has those abilities -- like he showed on the dunk against the Shockers -- he developed a good midrange jumper last season and extended his range this season.
"It has [been a focus], just trying to work on it throughout the season," he said. "As the season goes on, you kind of lose some legs. Just continually working on it, it always helps."
It's certainly helping Tennessee.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...