KNOXVILLE — Tennessee guard Jordan McRae is still adjusting to the extra attention that comes with being a team’s leading scorer.
McRae averaged 21.6 points during a seven-game stretch that included Tennessee’s first six Southeastern Conference games. At one point, he was the SEC’s leading scorer in league competition.
But he has shot a combined 4 of 21 over his last two games as opposing defenses have focused more on stopping him. The 6-foot-5 junior will try to break out of this mini-slump Wednesday when Tennessee (11-9, 3-5 SEC) hosts Georgia (10-11, 4-4).
“I think teams are definitely defending me differently,” McRae said.
McRae said he noticed a difference in the way teams were focusing on him last week. He shot 2 of 10 and scored seven points Jan. 29 in a 58-57 victory over Vanderbilt. McRae followed that up Saturday by scoring six points and shooting 2 of 11 in a 73-60 loss to Arkansas.
Now he encounters more traffic on his drives to the basket. When McRae passes the ball, he has a tough time getting it back. Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes said opposing players have even told him that they’re making sure to slow down McRae.
“I don’t think teams have a guy leaving Jordan,” Stokes said. “Definitely when I get the ball and teams double-team (me), Jordan probably won’t be open. They’re definitely defending him differently. ... It’s just something as a player he has to deal with probably for the rest of the season.”
McRae is getting all this extra attention at the same time he’s trying to adjust to a new role.
Although McRae is a natural shooting guard, he also often runs the offense for a team without a true point guard on scholarship.
“As of right now, that’s kind of tough for me, trying to run the team and get my shot when I can,” McRae said. “That’s just really a part of learning how to play the point.”
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin acknowledges McRae has an easier time getting open looks when he’s playing off the ball.
“He can come off screens, catch and shoot and make plays as opposed to bring the ball up because when he brings the ball up they can identify him,” Martin said. “They know where he is at all times as opposed to him running off screens, cutting through the lanes and setting back screens for other guys. Then he is catching and shooting and using his dribble.”
The problem is that the Vols might need him to play point guard now more than ever because of its injury situation in the backcourt. Junior guard Trae Golden, one of the team’s best ball handlers, missed the Arkansas game with a strained right hamstring and also didn’t practice Monday.
That puts more pressure on McRae to run the offense. Golden and assistant coach Tracy Webster have offered advice about playing point guard and finding open shots while running an offense. Webster played point guard at Wisconsin from 1992-94 and still owns school records for assists in a season (179) and career (501).
The Tennessee-Georgia game could come down to which team gets more production from its high-scoring guard. Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope averages 17.6 points per game and McRae has 17.3 points per game in league competition. The only SEC player with a higher scoring average in league games is Mississippi guard Marshall Henderson (21.8).
While McRae has cooled off lately, Caldwell-Pope has heated up. Caldwell-Pope, the reigning SEC player of the week, averaged 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 64 percent from the field in two wins last week. His emergence has helped Georgia win four of its last five games.
“Kentavious has improved in a lot of areas,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I think he’s just playing more efficiently this year. I think he doesn’t have to shoot it 20 times to be productive. I think he is starting to understand how to make people better. He’s been pretty consistent throughout the year because he’s had a very mature approach. He’s eager to get better.”
Fox also remains impressed with McRae, no matter how the guard has fared in his last couple of games.
“He looks like a kid who’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Fox said. “He’s scoring the ball well. Because he’s had some success, he just looks like a more confident player.”
Yet McRae still believes he can do much more. Even before he struggled in the last two games, McRae wasn’t overly pleased with his season.
“I’m really not satisfied at all,” McRae said. “(My) biggest scoring games, they resulted in a loss. I really haven’t accomplished anything this year.”
His numbers suggest otherwise.