If Tennessee ends up earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament, Vol fans have Jessie Fleming to thank.
Were it not for the urging of Fleming, an AAU basketball coach in Hinesville, Ga., Tennessee junior guard Jordan McRae might be playing center field in the minor leagues, not shooting guard for a power conference team that, some experts believe, is a win over Missouri on Saturday away from claiming a spot in the Big Dance.
In his last six games, McRae has been arguably the hottest offensive player in the country, ringing up an average of 25.8 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field, 59 percent from 3-point range (23 of 39) and 83 percent from the free-throw line. Included in that streak was a 35-point game against Georgia, 34 against LSU, 27 against Florida and a string of confounded defenders and coaches.
“We just didn’t have an answer for him,” was the way LSU coach Johnny Jones described McRae’s 13-of-18 from the field, 6-of-6 from 3 onslaught against the Tigers.
Concurrent with McRae’s path of destruction through the SEC, Tennessee has played its best basketball in a season that was careening due south after a 3-6 start in the league. Since then, with the 6-foot-5 178-pound McRae leading the way, the Vols have won seven of eight and gone from being invisible to the NCAA selection committee to the right side of the bubble.
None of this would have been possible had McRae stuck with his first love. In eighth grade, he had visions of playing outfield in the Major Leagues.
“I was just playing rec [basketball] at the time,” McRae said. “I was really serious about baseball. But my AAU coach told my mom basketball is what I needed to be playing. That following summer, I played AAU basketball, and I never touched a baseball again after that.”
Fleming’s son and McRae had grown up together, but Fleming never envisioned the gangly youngster as a basketball player until the day he happened upon McRae shooting baskets by himself.
“I walked into the gym, and you know how you can just look at a guy and you know he can play?” Fleming said. “That’s the feeling I had about Jordan. He just looked like that. He had these long limbs, and he was probably about 5-9, 5-10, big feet. He looked like he was gonna be 6-6, 6-7.
“The other thing is he was a natural. He had never even played basketball, but already you could see that he could score. I said when he learned how to play this game, he was gonna be a bad boy.”
McRae played for Fleming’s South Georgia Kings until he was good enough to graduate to a higher level of AAU competition—the Atlanta Celtics, where his teammates included his future partner in Tennessee’s backcourt, Trae Golden, Ryan Harrow (Kentucky), Brandon Knight (Kentucky), Andre Malone (Auburn) and Derrick Favors (Georgia Tech).
The Celtics were a springboard to nationwide exposure, and after McRae began turning up on the top 100 lists of recruiting analysts, he had his pick of schools. Georgia seemed his likely destination, but Tennessee got involved the day Steve Forbes, then an assistant to Bruce Pearl, spotted him at an AAU tournament in Memphis.
“The thing I remember most about Jordie when I first saw him was that he could score in bunches,” said Forbes, now the head coach at Northwest Florida. “He could score nine points in a matter of a minute, kind of like [former Tennessee star] Chris Lofton. And he was tall and athletic. He was also thin and very emotional, but his ability to score is what stood out.”
McRae committed to the Vols before his senior year of high school, becoming part of a class that, at the time, was among the best in the country because it also included point guards Josh Selby and Aaron Craft. Selby (Kansas) and Craft (Ohio State) eventually signed elsewhere though, giving McRae a chance to make his first impact on the program when he convinced his AAU teammate, Trae Golden, to sign with Tennessee.
McRae’s freshman year at Tennessee mirrored that of the program, which meant it was rocky. Pearl was under fire from the NCAA and speculation about his future ran rampant in the national media. Though McRae was often the Vols’ best backcourt scorer in practice, he played in just 10 games and averaged 1.8 points. He was suspended for two weeks in the middle of the season.
“He wasn’t emotionally or physically ready to play,” Forbes said.
After Pearl was fired and former Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin took over, McRae became one of Martin’s first reclamation projects. As a sophomore, McRae played in 34 games and started 15 of them while averaged 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds. But he was still a work in progress.
That much was apparent this season, which McRae began as the Vols’ sixth man. But after a 26-point effort against Memphis on Jan. 2, McRae earned a battlefield promotion to the starting lineup and has been a fixture there since. McRae followed that effort with another 26 points against Ole Miss, 21 at Alabama and 23 at Kentucky.
Since the Memphis game, McRae has averaged 23.8 points. If that seems as though McRae is something of an overnight situation, well, quite the opposite is true. Martin and his staff have worked for two seasons poking and prodding McRae to help him maximize his potential.
“We’ve always known his potential,” Tennessee assistant Kent Williams said. “It’s just trying to get it out of him. You’ve got to try different ways with different players. At first we told him we’re bringing you off the bench and making you earn it. He had to get a lot better on defense. He’s gone through this hard way.”
McRae’s defense, or sometimes lack thereof, might have been his biggest obstacle to more playing time, but he also had to refine his considerable offensive game, rely less on 3-point shots and start using those physical gifts Jessie Fleming spotted so many years ago.
”He’s always had the mentality to score, but there were certain things he had to work on,” Martin said. “He shoots a lot of leaners looking for fouls. … He’s 6-5 with a 7-foot wingspan—get to your spot on the floor and shoot your pull-up. If you can’t get to the rim, not many guys are going to block your shot, and he’s done a really good job with it. Even with his 3-point shot, catch and shoot; because of his ability to get to the basket, you have to respect his 3-point shot.”
That versatility explains why McRae has been racking up points. Though he’s recently become every opposing team’s primary defensive focus, McRae has hardly been slowed down, let alone shut down.
“To be a prolific scorer at this level, you’ve got to be able to create your own shot,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be able to score outside the offense. You can’t always get baskets running set plays. Defenses can take that away. The really good ones have a knack for scoring outside the offense.”
McRae has put in the time to get better, and though the results have been dramatic, some of his improvement has been subtle. His perimeter game has become a weapon because he’s tightened his mechanics and his shot selection. He’s making a higher percentage of his free throws. And McRae has added new wrinkles, including bank shots from seemingly impossible angles.
“I give coach Martin a lot of the credit for that,” McRae said. “He’s big on skill development. He always tells us that if you miss a wide-open shot, there’s a simple fix. Five hundred [practice shots] a day will solve all your problems.
“Coach Martin has been on me from day one. I was young and real immature when I first got here. A lot of things didn’t click to me. But coach Martin was tough on me because he sees something in me. Now that I’m older, coach Martin and I have a good relationship. And he still says on me. I could score 25 points, and the next day I’ll go to his office and he’ll show me five clips of things I did wrong.”
McRae’s maturity has been noticed from afar by the man who recruited him to Tennessee.
“It looks like Cuonzo and his staff have done a good job of helping Jordie keep his emotions in check,” Forbes said. “There’s a fine line to that, because emotion is his strength, too. He’s competitive and he wants to win. That’s what makes your motor run is competitiveness. But you have to turn it on and turn it off. Jordie didn’t understand that as a younger player.”
There is ample evidence to suggest McRae understands it now. Sometimes, even he is surprised by how far he’s come. Some experts, including ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, believe McRae is the SEC’s player of the year.
“The process of growing up, you really don’t see it until you’re the one in practice telling somebody what to do, or you’re in a game and coach Martin is counting on you to do this or do that,” McRae said. “That’s a position that some guys might be scared of being in. That might have been me before. But not now. Now, I’m not afraid of doing whatever it takes to help this team win.”