KNOXVILLE - While Tennessee's tandem of preseason All-SEC picks are mired in midseason struggles, Jordan McRae is thriving with the the basketball in his hands and the team's scoring burden on his back.
It's scary for the Volunteers to think of how much worse their current four-game losing skid would be if not for the scoring binge of their junior wing, who's poured in 20-plus points throughout that stretch.
"He's helped us a lot," freshman forward Derek Reese said. "He's stepped up big time in games that we've needed. I'm glad he's playing like this.
"We need that. We also need someone else to step up. We also really need to step up on defense, because that's how we win games."
Tennessee gave itself chances to win down the stretch against Memphis, Alabama and Kentucky due in part to McRae's offense. He scored 26, 21 and 23 points in those losses, added 26 against Ole Miss and shot better than 50 percent in the stretch.
Another such performance this afternoon against Mississippi State in Knoxville would make McRae the first Tennessee player with five consecutive 20-point games since Chris Lofton did it in 2008.
The formula for the lanky 6-foot-5 Georgia native is rather simple.
"I feel like I've just been taking more shots, and the more shots you take, the better chance you have to score," he said. "I'm just being aggressive and not shooting as many 3s. I feel like my game this whole year has been solid, and it just stands out more because of the high-point games.
"I'm just attacking and being more aggressive than I've ever been in college."
In primarily a sixth-man role, McRae averaged just eight field-goal attempts in Tennessee's first 11 games. He's more than doubled that number in the past four games and shot 26 free throws. The Vols' need for his scoring prompted a move into the starting lineup.
"He always had the ability to score," coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I said to him two or three weeks ago: 'If you're a scorer, then be that.' I don't know many scorers that leave games on a consistent basis with six or seven shots.
"If you're a scorer, you've got to get 12 or 15 shots up [and] get to the free-throw line."
McRae's scoring spike has coincided with the funks of point guard Trae Golden and forward Jarnell Stokes.
Golden made just nine of his last 33 shots over a five-game stretch and lost his spot in the starting lineup. It's unclear how much a bruised shoulder suffered against Xavier is the cause of his problems, and Martin has been public in his stance that it's not the injury. In 29 minutes, his most during his slump, against Kentucky on Tuesday, Golden scored just seven points, missed two free throws and committed five turnovers.
In three of the last five games, Stokes has played 21 minutes or less due to either foul trouble or the fear of missed free throws.
"Jordan's done a good job of scoring the basketball, but I think other guys are putting themselves in position but aren't knocking them down," Martin said. "I think for us, Trae Golden, Jarnell Stokes, those guys have potential to be really good scorers. Now it's just a matter of putting them in position to be successful to score the ball."
Despite his offense, Martin has harped on McRae's defense. Effort isn't a problem on that end of the floor, and Martin acknowledged that McRae's wiry frame makes it difficult for him to fight through screens and body up against bigger players. McRae admits he must use his offensive approach on defense and guard his man more aggressively.
"I've known since I've been here: No matter how many points you score, no matter what you do the game before, it's all about defense," McRae said. "He hasn't really said anything about me scoring. He says I'm doing a good job, but -- there's always a 'but' -- you have to defend better.
"And it's true."