How Tennessee finishes in its last two games may have a bigger bearing on Tennessee guard Jordan McRae's chances at winning SEC player of the year. Ole Miss's Marshall Henderson leads the league in scoring, 3-pointers made and free-throw percentage, and Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Texas A&M's Elston Turner are in the top 10 of nine and seven statistical categories, respectively. Led by a balanced attack, Florida has been the league's best team all season.
Here are McRae's numbers in SEC play and where they rank in the league.
Category - Stat - SEC Rank
Scoring - 19.4 ppg - 3rd
Rebounding - 4.8 rpg - T-20th
Field goal percentage - 46.0 - 6th
Free throw percentage - 76.9 T - 10th
3-point percentage - 40.0 - 5th
3-pointers made - 34 - 8th
Minutes - 37.7 mpg - 1st
KNOXVILLE - Cuonzo Martin took to the campaign trail on Monday, and the pitch from the Tennessee basketball coach had nothing to do with his team's chase of an NCAA tournament bid.
No prompt was necessary for Martin to start stating his case for Jordan McRae, the Volunteers' leading scorer, to be the Southeastern Conference player of the year.
"If I had a vote," Martin said, "I'd vote Jordan ... and it's not just because he's my guy."
The 6-foot-5 junior wing poured in a career-high 35 points in the Vols' loss at Georgia and scored 27 points against league-leading Florida in Tennessee's win last week. In his past five games, McRae averaged 26.8 points and six rebounds. In the past four games, he shot 53 percent and made 20 3-pointers, including eight of 11 attempts Saturday.
"Of course it would mean a lot to me," McRae said when asked about winning the award, "but at this point of the season right now I'm not really thinking about anything like that. We're just trying to win out these last two games. I'm playing well right now, and I credit that to my teammates.
"We're still trying to win these last two games, and that's my main focus right now."
Later in his pre-practice meeting with the media, McRae playfully laughed off a question about the NBA and insisted his gaze is aimed at his team and Auburn and Missouri, Tennessee's final two regular-season opponents.
"I think he'll be there," Martin said. "When it's all said and done, he'll be there [if] he continues on the pace he's on. Obviously he's got to get stronger in certain areas and there's certain things you've got to work on, but when you have the mentality to score, you're making shots and you're productive in that area, you're in the ballpark."
It took some time, however, for McRae to make it there.
A four-star prospect ranked ninth among shooting guards in his high school class by Rivals.com, McRae played just 53 minutes in 10 games his freshman season. His role increased last season, but inconsistency eventually forced him into a sixth-man role. McRae averaged only 8.6 points and shot 38 percent from the field and 33 percent from the 3-point line.
This season McRae's numbers have gone up across the board. His rebounds are up nearly one per game, and he has more assists through 28 games than he had all of last season. His percentages are better and his scoring average nearly has doubled.
"I think it's a maturity thing," senior guard Skylar McBee said. "Coming in, you don't really know what to expect as a freshman. Now I think he feels a lot more comfortable in the role that he's in of having to be a scorer and doing the things he needs to do for us to be able to win.
"From him coming in, it's like a night and day difference. You always knew the talent was there, but you just never knew when it was going to come out. It's been coming out, and we've kind of gotten to see what he's made of and how good of a player he can be."
It took some patience for McRae, and coming in with Tobias Harris, a one-and-done player who played his way to the 19th overall pick in the NBA draft during his freshman year at Tennessee, probably tested his patience.
Yet McRae remembered some advice he got from Scotty Hopson, a former teammate who led the Vols in scoring three seasons ago.
"Hop used to always tell me, 'Your time's going to come,' and I still think about that all the time," McRae said. "Some players come into college, and like Tobias, he can just have it, have the confidence. That's just him, but it takes some players, like myself, it just takes time to develop.
"I just think what I went through over the years was for this, for me to learn from it and play well now."
The last Tennessee player to be the SEC player of the year was Ron Slay in 2003.
"He's put himself in position," Martin said, "to win that award."