McRae, Vols wary of Arkansas press

McRae, Vols wary of Arkansas press

February 2nd, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee's Jordan McRae shoots over Alabama's Trevor Lacey during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville.

Tennessee's Jordan McRae shoots over Alabama's Trevor Lacey...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Jordan McRae wears the label simply by default.

That doesn't mean Tennessee's top scorer is donning it proudly.

When coach Cuonzo Martin shuffled the Volunteers' starting lineup before Tennessee's Southeastern Conference basketball opener, McRae, now in the first five, looked around and noticed he was the de facto point guard.

"He never really came to me," McRae said. "One day he just said that was going to be the lineup, and I figured I was going to play the point with what the lineup was. He shows a lot of trust in me at that spot."

Yet the name of that spot -- pseudo point guard, point-wing, the 1 and so on -- is up for debate.

"I think we start two forwards and three guards," McRae said with a sly grin. "I don't want to call myself the point guard."

Nevertheless, Tennessee has been forced to heap the primary ball-handling responsibilities on the 6-foot-6 wing, and the results have been mixed. With the ball in his hands more, McRae is scoring nearly 19 points a game on 14 shot attempts in SEC play. Yet he's had three or more turnovers in five of those seven games, including a nine-turnover game at Ole Miss.

Those turnover are a little disconcerting for the Vols as they visit press-happy Arkansas this afternoon, but beating the Razorbacks' pressure-packed, helter-skelter style doesn't fall completely on McRae's lanky frame.

"I think the way that Arkansas presses, you have to be able to handle the ball whether you're a point guard or not," Martin said. "If you can't handle the ball, it's going to be a long night for you. I think really it's getting the ball over the top of that press and attacking the rim.

"They bring so much pressure up front, so you've got to get it over the top in order to get easy baskets, which is easier said than done because they keep coming."

Though more naturally a scoring guard, Trae Golden succeeded as the Vols' point guard last season, when he led Tennessee in scoring and ranked fourth in the SEC in assists -- and to start this season, when Golden averaged 13 points and five assists in Tennessee's first 10 games.

But the junior's mysterious struggles -- and to some degree the absence of forward Jeronne Maymon -- forced Martin to use a more of a by-committee approach at the point. Due to Golden's hamstring injury, Tennessee will have to fill his 23-minute average in SEC play, likely with Brandon Lopez. The walk-on might be the most natural point guard on the roster.

Martin said after Tuesday's win against Vanderbilt that the Vols' lack of a point guard limits how many half-court offensive sets they can run. Thursday he downplayed that by noting that his motion offense emphasizes movement and spacing.

While the lack of a true point guard certainly doesn't help Tennessee, both coach and player acknowledge the extra responsibility helps McRae.

"He wants to handle the ball," Martin said. "That's what we have to do. I think that's another phase for his game, his overall game -- being able to handle the basketball as opposed to be a catch-and-shoot guy or attacking off one or two dribbles.

"I think his game has evolved from the standpoint of being able to handle, and now he's more of a threat in other ways."

Said McRae: "I think it's good for me, too. I talk to Trae about it. Sometimes it's hard.

"When the team is struggling, I want to find my shot and help us out scoring, but as a point guard you can't just come down, no passes, and shoot, so Trae just tells me little things about how to score at the point and when to score and when also to find your teammates."