High-flying Jordan McRae is learning to become more grounded playing in coach Cuonzo Martin's system.
Proof of that came with just under 14 minutes left in Tennessee's 64-49 men's basketball victory over Auburn on Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols (10-11, 2-4 SEC) had just upped their lead to 38-25 on a McRae baseline jumper when the Tigers (12-9, 2-5) came racing back down the court seeking a way back into contention.
Adrian Forbes, a 6-foot-8, 232-pound forward, found a seam at the top of the key and accelerated toward the basket.
McCrae, a wispy 6-5, 174-pounder, planted himself in Forbes' path.
Onlookers winced, awaiting the inevitable collision. McRae was knocked onto his back, into the photographers behind the baseline, for the sake of drawing the offensive foul.
McRae finished with 11 points, a career-high six rebounds, two blocked shots and an assist, coming off the bench to play 25 minutes. It was the most action he had seen since scoring 19 points in a 71-65 loss at the College of Charleston on Dec. 14.
"I think it was my most complete game,'' McRae said. "Being so athletic and with my length, I think I should always get more rebounds than I do. Tonight, Coach Martin told me to get on the boards more. I have not played well in the past couple of games, so I had to do something tonight. I stepped it up.''
Martin and the Vols will need to take yet another step up if they are to compete with No. 1 Kentucky (21-1, 7-0) on Tuesday (TV: ESPNU, 7 p.m.) at Rupp Arena.
While Martin won't change his philosophy on the need for constant defense, UT's first-year coach concedes his team needs to improve on offense after suffering through its two worst shooting nights of the season.
The Vols shot 35.3 percent in a 65-47 loss to Vanderbilt last Tuesday before sinking to 34.5
percent in the win over Auburn.
McRae could offer an offensive spark if he can show Saturday night's performance is the start of a new trend, as opposed to an aberration.
The drawn charge was only the second McRae has taken this season, matching the number taken by UT starting point guard Trae Golden.
But while Golden has maintained his starting position despite questions about his defensive prowess, McRae was replaced in the starting lineup by defensive-minded freshman Josh Richardson prior to the Vols' 67-56 win over then-No. 13 Florida in both teams' SEC opener on Jan. 7.
It was a lineup change few could have projected at the start of the season, as many expected McRae to soar to new highs and take over as the Vols' leading scorer.
McRae flashed some of his open-floor abilities at the start of the season, averaging 15.3 points through November including back-to-back 25-point performances against Chaminade and Oakland.
But as scouting tape of UT trickled out, opponents realized that taking the ball at McRae often led to good results. Suddenly, McRae was a marked man, and his inability to come up with defensive stops has led him to time served on the bench.
Prior to the Auburn game, McRae's playing time had decreased since he played 21 minutes coming off the bench against Florida.
McRae played 19 minutes in the next game at Mississippi State, then 11 minutes against Kentucky. Ten-minute outings against Georgia and Connecticut followed before he was on the floor a season-low eight minutes in the 65-47 shellacking at Vanderbilt.
"I definitely have had to look at myself and see what I'm not doing,'' McRae said. "I have to fight through the screens and do all the little things that helps our team win.
"So I'm just constantly working on my defense, every day, trying to do what I can to stay on the floor. I just tell myself constantly to get in the gym, get the extra shots. Talent without hard work is dead.''
McRae's willingness to take the charge, rebound and play defense against Auburn sent a message that maybe the sophomore can transition into Martin's system, after all.
"Jordan did a good job, he brought his hard hat,'' Martin said following the win over Auburn. "It was good to see him going down, getting rebounds, being assertive, attacking the rim.''
Monster Maymon: UT junior forward Jeronne Maymon enjoyed the best SEC performance of his career with 15 points and 19 rebounds.
"Jeronne without a doubt, he brings his hard hat and rebounds,'' Martin said. "He has a ways to go before he's the best he can be.''
Auburn coach Tony Barbee heaped praise on Maymon.
"He's just a physical presence, and he think every time the ball hits the rim it's his,'' Barbee said. "Those are the kinds of big guys you want. We expect somebody else to get the rebound, when he thinks every rebound that hits the glass is his. That's how you've got to play as a big man. It's a toughness thing; rebounding is all about toughness.''
McBee's Defense: UT junior Skylar McBee gets most of his attention for being the most accurate 3-point shooter on the team. But McBee showed he could play good defense Saturday night, holding Auburn's leading scorer, Frankie Sullivan, to five points on 2-of-12 shooting.
"That's just paying attention to the scouting report,'' said McBee, who drew the task of trying to hold Sullivan below his 12.4 points-per-game average. "We closed out hard on him and didn't let him get a lot of good looks outside. We made him drive to the basket and our bigs did a good job stepping up and blocking shots.''
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32