First, the eyes rolled. Then, the head shook side-to-side.
“Don’t do that don’t do that,” Jordan McRae began, before the inevitable question reached completion. “C’mon man. I have no thoughts(on that). Tennessee basketball, Auburn, Missouri — that’s my only focus right now.”
The Tennessee junior is getting some well-earned but unwanted attention.
Jordan McRae for SEC player of the year? Jordan McRae, future NBA player?
That’s what averaging 29.8 points and making 20 of 32 3-point attempts in a late-season, four-game stretch gets you. A spotlight that began the season centered on injured star Jeronne Maymon, then shifted to sophomore Jarnell Stokes, then slid over to point guard Trae Golden, is now trained solely on the long-limbed, wincingly thin McRae.
That’s why Monday began with some lobbying.
“I think if I had a vote (for SEC player of the year), I’d vote Jordan McRae,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said at his weekly media luncheon.
Told of Martin’s petitioning, McRae said, “Of course it would mean a lot to me, but at this course of the season, I’m not really thinking about all that. I’m just trying to win out these last two games.”
Still eyeing those dangling, up-for-grabs at-large berths to the NCAA tournament, the Vols (17-11, 9-7 SEC) will close the season with a couple of Tigers. They’ll face struggling Auburn (9-20, 3-13), losers in 12 of its last 13, on Wednesday (TV: CSS, 9 p.m.) at Auburn Arena. The finale brings Missouri to Thompson-Boling on Saturday afternoon.
They’re the last two games of what’s become an unexpected player-of-the-year campaign.
Unexpected because it wasn’t supposed to be McRae’s candidacy. But then McRae doused himself in diesel and became the hottest scorer in the country this side of Creighton’s Doug McDermott.
LSU saw 34 points. Texas A&M endured 23. Florida succumbed to 27. Georgia was force fed 35.
Through 24 games, McRae, who put up 26 points three times earlier this season, but was held to single digits in eight other outings, was averaging 13.2 points per game. After the last four games, that average is up to 16.0 points.
Thus all the chatter around McRae.
One NBA scout told the News Sentinel on Monday that McRae is indeed on the league’s radar. The guard’s natural, versatile scoring ability and improved 3-point shooting is attractive. His 6-foot-5, 178-pound frame, though, project him as an undersized two guard.
It’s far too early to discuss the specifics — the potential of McRae entering the draft early or if and when he’d be selected — but the talk exists.
“I think when it’s all said and done, he’ll be there (the NBA),” Martin said.
McRae claims accolades and the NBA aren’t on his itinerary. He said, “It’s all about trying to get wins,” and deflected praise of his blooming production to his teammates.
That doesn’t mean reality hasn’t crept into view. McRae acknowledged that going from stagehand to star in three months can change a 21-year-old.
“If you don’t control it, it can be different,” the Georgia native said. “My phone is off a lot of the time. I try to stay out of all that conversation about the superstar and all that.”
Much of McRae’s elevated play stems from being untethered by Martin. A balance of improved shooting and innate scoring from difficult spots has turned him into one of the SEC’s biggest mismatches. He can shoot over smaller, quicker defenders and drive past taller, stronger foes. As a result, he’s been given a long leash by his coach.
“I think confidence has a lot to do with it,” Martin said.
And as long that confidence keeps producing points, the surrounding conversation will remain.
Whether McRae likes it or not.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.