Tennessee's basketball team looks to find its groove tonight against Georgia but the Vols are unlikely to succeed unless Jordan McRae relocates his groove.
McRae was clearly groovin' in early January. Making a combined 18 of 35 shots, including 8 of 20 from 3-point range, he produced back-to-back 26-point performances against Memphis (Jan. 4) and Ole Miss (Jan. 9) while committing just three turnovers in 66 minutes.
Then, taking one for the team, he agreed to move from shooting guard to point guard. Asking a shoot-first scorer to become a pass-first setup man is akin to asking a home run hitter to bunt: It just ain't natural.
McRae has given the new role his best shot but his discomfort level at the point is painfully evident in his recent turnover totals — 5 at Alabama, 4 at Kentucky, 9 at Ole Miss and 4 in a home rematch with Bama. That's to be expected when a guy with a so-so handle tries to play a position that forces him to handle the ball more than anyone else.
Another downside of McRae's switch from shooting guard to point guard is the erosive impact it has had on other aspects of his game. He made just 2 of 10 shots en route to 7 points last Tuesday against Vanderbilt, then went 2 of 11 en route to 6 points Saturday at Arkansas.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin believes the physicality of recent opponents has contributed significantly to McRae's offensive slump.
"One thing is they're being physical with him, being aggressive and upfront," Martin said. "They're forcing his looks and making him make plays off the dribble with one or two guys rotating to help on him."
McRae conceded that he's getting jostled a bit but added, "That's just something where I've got to be more patient."
Playing point guard also seems to be affecting him defensively. He fouled out against Arkansas and finished with four fouls in recent games against Mississippi State (Jan. 19) and Ole Miss (Jan. 24). His less-than-smooth transition is made even more taxing by the fact Tennessee is 3-4 in his seven starts at the point.
"As of right now, I think that's kind of tough on me — trying to run the team and get my shot when I can," he said. "That's really a part of learning to play the point."
Blessed with a 6-foot-5 frame, a 7-foot wingspan and plenty of athleticism, McRae has the tools provide 10 to 15 minutes of adequate point-guard play on an occasional basis. With Trae Golden questionable due to a hamstring strain, however, McRae may be looking at playing 30 to 35 minutes at a position he's struggling to grasp. Fill-ins Brandon Lopez, Josh Richardson and Armani Moore also are struggling to run the offense, which is why Tennessee committed 20 turnovers in Saturday's loss at Arkansas.
"Without Trae being out there ... he's the best ball-handler on the team, so we just have to have more guys to step up handling the ball," McRae said. "Myself, I have to limit turnovers."
To help in his transition, McRae has been picking the brain of Vol aide Tracy Webster, who was a three-time All-Big Ten point guard at Wisconsin in the early 1990s.
"I'm talking to Trae and Coach Webster a whole lot," McRae said, "trying to figure out as a point guard where is the best place to get shots from and when to shoot 'em."
Clearly, the best place for McRae to get shots is the wing, where he doesn't have to worry about reading the defense and running the offense. Martin realizes as much.
"It helps him some when you get him off the ball, so he can catch and shoot," the head man conceded. "He can come off screens, catch and shoot and make plays, as opposed to bringing the ball up. When he brings the ball up they can identify him. They know where he is at all times, as opposed to him running off screens and cutting through the lanes. Then he's catching and shooting and using his dribble."
GAME NOTES: Tennessee brings an 11-9 overall record and a 3-5 SEC mark into tonight's game. Georgia is 10-11 and 4-4. The Vols are 9-2 at home this season. The Bulldogs are 2-4 on the road but have won their last two (at Texas A&M and South Carolina).... Georgia's top player is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who averages 15.5 points per game. He is the Dawgs' only double-figure scorer. McRae is Tennessee's top scorer at 13.9 points per game. Pope and McRae rank 2-3 among SEC players in league scoring, Pope at 17.6 ppg, McRae at 17.3 ppg.... The Vol roster features four Georgians — McRae (Midway), Kenny Hall (Stone Mountain), Trae Golden (Powder Springs) and Armani Moore (Kennesaw). All but Golden project to start tonight.... Tennessee’s plus-4.5 rebounding margin is third-best in the conference but its minus- 3.6 turnover margin in SEC play ranks 12th in the league.... Tonight's game tips off at 8:05 Eastern Time with television coverage provided by the SEC Network.