Charging down the highway for an off-day recruiting trip Wednesday, Tennessee assistant men’s basketball coach Kent Williams paused to pinpoint the root of Jordan McRae’s 34-point assault of LSU the night before.
Williams knows about slipping into unconsciousness. He knows what it’s like to shoot at a rim stretched into an inviting black hole. In a four-year career at Southern Illinois, 747 of his 2,012 points came on 249 career 3-pointers.
So Williams pondered McRae’s UT-record tying 3-point barrage against LSU in which he went 6-for-6.
Intentionally or not, Williams instead described the Vols as a whole.
“It’s contagious,” Williams said by phone. “When some other guys are shooting well, you tend to shoot well with them. You feel good as a team.”
Whatever is going around, every Tennessee player seems to have caught it. The Vols (15-10, 7-6 SEC) have posted more than 80 points in two straight games and are shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from 3-point distance in an ongoing four-game winning streak.
First, Jarnell Stokes caught the bug, rambling on a streak of double-doubles. Then Trae Golden fell under the spell, returning from a strained hamstring to average 18.0 points in four outings. Then it was Skylar McBee, whose infected shooting touch has made four of its last six 3-point attempts.
Now it’s McRae. After scoring right around his season average against Vanderbilt (14) and Kentucky (15), the junior guard broke out on Tuesday. Six made 3-pointers were joined by pull-up midrange jumpers, some contested layups and one big, slide-back-in-your seat, right-handed tomahawk dunk.
“The thing with Jordan, when he’s hitting them, he stays within what he does, and when he’s not, he sometimes comes out of his element and forces the issue a little bit,” Williams said. “There are guys that are great shooters and guys that are just OK shooters, form-wise and all that, but when you have confidence, it takes you a long ways.”
And everyone in orange is seemingly feeling confident. A recent switch by coach Cuonzo Martin to a four-guard offense has paid huge dividends. By removing a traditional four man, the Vols’ offense has fed off better spacing, sharper cuts and crisper ball movement.
Most importantly, shots are falling. From everywhere. This being the same team that made just 13 field goals — tied for its third-lowest total in program history — in a 17-point loss to Oklahoma State and was held under 40 in losses at Georgetown and Virginia.
That all came more than nine weeks ago. Ancient history, according to Williams.
“Guys have figured out their roles a little bit,” the second-year assistant said. “I think early in the year, guys were trying to figure out who should take the shot, who should do what.”
There’s no tangible strategy for keeping a hot team cooking. McRae missed 17 of 21 3-pointers before the LSU game. He wasn’t sprinkled in pixie dust Tuesday. The shots just fell.
When Tennessee faces SEC newcomer Texas A&M (15-10, 5-7) on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 4 p.m.), no one knows who will do what.
And for a team sick with confidence, that’s not a bad problem. Asked if he and the Vols can only hope the shots keep falling, Williams snickered and conceded, “That’s all you can do.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.