Jordan McRae and Cuonzo Martin building an understanding

Guard has matured under 2nd-year coach

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin talks with guard Jordan McRae (52) during the game against Presbyterian at Thompson-Boling Arena Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Brimer

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin talks with guard Jordan McRae (52) during the game against Presbyterian at Thompson-Boling Arena Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Cuonzo Martin on the play of Jordan McRae

Josh Richardson remembers the other Jordan McRae.

The guy from last year.

The pouty sophomore. The self-embattled antagonist.

"From when I got here last year, Jordie was always screaming and just always mad about something," Richardson said Monday. "He'd let little stuff get to him a lot."

That's not the Jordan McRae who will lead Tennessee against Vanderbilt tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena (TV: ESPNU, 7 p.m.). One year and many life lessons later, McRae, the Vols' budding star, has gone from nonconformist to catalyst.

"He's definitely, definitely matured a lot," Richardson said.

As has McRae's game. Averaging 20.8 points per game in SEC play, the junior has established himself as one of the league's top producers. His numbers are up across the board, including shooting an impressive 48.8 percent against league competition.

"More than anything, Jordan is playing with a level of confidence right now," said UT coach Cuonzo Martin.

Rightfully so. That confidence was hard-earned.

McRae's current play is the result of tug-of-war between he and Martin. Their relationship has had all the tell-tale signs of a coach inheriting a player he didn't recruit.

Martin pulled.

McRae pulled.

For a long time, neither gave an inch.

"There were times I didn't know what to do, didn't know what he wanted from me," McRae said.

Sometimes they'd have lengthy, drawn-out phone conversations. Other times, Martin would be terse, sending a simple text message saying, "Jordan, you have to rebound more."

The constant attention — being called out in practice, being yo-yoed in and out of the starting lineup — left McRae resentful.

The talent was always there. McRae is a pure 6-foot-5 scorer with a 7-foot wingspan. His numbers last year fluctuated wildly, though, a result of the contention. As a freshman he played in just 10 games for Bruce Pearl and was suspended five games for disciplinary reasons.

That same enigma has scored double figures in 10 of the last 11 games and started six straight games.

The difference? Martin has learned to coach McRae and McRae has learned to play for Martin.

"I approach Jordan a little bit different than I approach other guys," said Martin, whose Vols enter the night 10-8 overall and 2-4 in the SEC. "There's a certain type of coaching that he needs and that he responds to. You might see us on the bench and it looks like we're arguing with each other in certain cases. But he needs a level of emotional energy."

Vanderbilt (8-10, 2-4 SEC) is all too aware of McRae's recent splurge. It's been tough to miss, overshadowed only by the theatrics of Marshall Henderson down at Ole Miss.

On the SEC teleconference Monday, Commodores coach Kevin Stallings lauded McRae, saying, "He may have the best mid-range game of anyone I've seen in this league in years. The midrange game, to me, is almost a lost art."

Despite rising production, McRae said he's seen little difference in how he's defended, other than, at times, big men staying home longer on ball screens.

He swears power forward Jarnell Stokes is still the focal point of opponent's scouting reports.

Asked if he's one of the best players in the SEC, McRae ducked the question like a high fastball. He continually double-backed to Stokes."

"Jarnell is the guy," he said.

With growth comes humility, and a better rapport with Martin.

"Two years ago I probably wouldn't have been able to play for coach Martin, to be honest with you," McRae said. "I just didn't really know how to handle things."

And now?

"Our relationship is getting better each day, each year, each month."

Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn

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Comments » 7

FeelVol writes:

This is good news and I hope that it continues for Jordans' sake and the teams,Go Vols!!!

iowavol writes:

Okay. What happens now? Can someone step up at the end of the game and make a few free throws, catch a ball, make a pass, make a move without walking, block out, rebound, drain a three, etc... How about you Jordan, are you that guy?

wigmeister writes:

Play well! The fans are counting on you!

1vavolfan writes:

The key to Jordan is just keep letting him take his shots. Last year CCM and even CBP before him would pull him if he missed a couple of shots. Against Bama he came out cold, stayed with it and wound up leading UT to a win. Love this kids energy and wish it would catch on with Trey.

tan007 writes:

Jordan is a very exciting player to watch & can really make a huge difference in the outcome of the ballgame. A very athletic player with a ton of energy. He is a huge asset to our team. Just keep up the good work, Jordan!

mocsandvolsfan writes:

I loved this article and analysis of McRae and Martin. At least it sounds like what should happen with coaches and their players ...OR players and their coaches. Sometimes the player has to be the one in control...at least of himself.

I don't know if the other players will accept McRae as a #1 team leader but they seem to like his energy. It's similar to what happened with Maymon once he was let loose. Sometimes you have to let the leash up a little. Let up on the reins. Back off a little. nuff said.

Martin's got a lot of potential to me. He may become one of the greats. I hope at least that McRae does. And Stokes. And Golden.

Just beat Vandy. It's not a give me game as some want to believe. well none of them are.

SouthPaVol writes:

McRae scored so well in the summer league a could years ago, one had to assume it was just a matter of time. I realize the summer league is not the SEC, but hitting an open shot is hitting an open shot.

Kinda like shooting free throws in an opponent's gym. It's an open shot; the goal is still 15' away, and 10' high. Either a player can make a FT or he can't; the rest is in his head. OK, granted, the rim MIGHT be a bit stiffer, but come on! For example, Notre Dame girls' team came into TBA shooting over 82% as a team from the line. If a girl can do it, surely our highly touted macho-male recruits can hit a FT! Just funnin'--well, just a little.

I believe the Vols are on the upsurge, unlike what some of the UT-hating TV announcers think. We are still learning how to get around three of our best scorers with key injuries. Maymon is out for the season; Trae's shoulder; McBee's elbow.

McRae is leading the charge; Josh is playing well; Stokes has come alive; Moore is stepping up. Now, we need another to put it onto the next gear. Both Hall and Reese are winding it out, about to break loose.

Would like to see UT beat KY by 15-20 at home then go on to win the SEC. Go Vols!

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