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.
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.
SEC Teleconference: Cuonzo Martin - Jan 28, 2013
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."
"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