KNOXVILLE – One of Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin’s preseason priorities was to find a backup point guard so starter Trae Golden wouldn’t have to play so many minutes. Ten games into the season, Martin’s search might be over.
Ironically, the job has fallen to a guy who led the Rocky Top summer league in scoring the last two years, including a record 45.7 average in 2012 that was inflated by a record 64-point game.
Scoring might be Jordan McRae’s stock in trade, but logging a few minutes a game as Golden’s backup hasn’t been a problem so far.
“It’s a spot that I’m comfortable playing,” McRae said. “I played a little bit there last year and some in (preseason) practice and some in Italy. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with.”
Freshman Armani Moore began the season as the Vols’ reserve point guard, but he’s played just six minutes in the last five games, including two dreaded DNPs against Wichita State and Presbyterian. A 1-2 assist-to-turnover ratio and some defensive lapses led to his slide out of Martin’s rotation, but he’ll get his chances to play his way back.
Tennessee’s need was so pressing that Martin gave walk-on Brandon Lopez a shot. Lopez earned it with his performance in practice, but he too can be a defensive liability because of his size (somewhere around 6-0 and 170 pounds).
How did McRae, a prolific and acrobatic scorer, earn his shot at the point?
“I think it was the Virginia game,” McRae said. “I did a really good job of pushing the ball in transition. After that, (Martin) started leaning towards me a little bit (at the point).”
“I like him there,” Martin said. “He does a good job of seeing over smaller guards. He’s able to make tough passes that other guards are hesitant to make, but Jordan will make that pass. He can see the floor and make good decisions, but he’s also a threat to score the ball.”
Though he’s become a part-time set-up man, that won’t adversely affect McRae’s own offensive contributions.
“I don’t think I’m a player that (opponents) can say, ‘He’s just gonna do one thing,'” McRae said. “That’s to my advantage.”
Speaking of advantages, McRae has begun using his natural gifts. He’s got the size to post up smaller guards, but he can also get to the rim with a good first step and leaping ability that has earned him a couple of spots on ESPN’s Top Plays the last two seasons. As he’s grown in Martin’s system McRae has learned not to be overly reliant on his jump shot.
“The past few games, I’ve focused on taking the 3s that are given to me, but not trying to force the issue and take it to the rim when I can,” McRae said. . “One of the problems for the guards was that Trae was the only one who was trying to get (into the lane) and get fouled and make things happen. People who can drive, they need to drive more. That’s me and Josh (Richardson). If we can do that and Skylar (McBee) can hit open shots, we’ll be fine.”
Putbacks: It’s look more and more like preseason All-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon is going to redshirt, though no official announcement has come from Tennessee. He would be able to come back for a sixth season even though he used a redshirt year after he transferred from Marquette as a freshman. . Also on the injury front, freshman Derek Reese has rejoined the Vols in full practice sessions after rehabbing from August surgery to correct a torn labrum. Reese is a three/four man who has touch from the outside and is a solid rebounder despite his thin frame. . The Vols will have to return the Xavier game next season and will also play at Wichita State. They will also play Virginia and probably Virginia Tech at home and take part in the Battle 4 Atlantis, a November tournament that includes Kansas, Villanova and Xavier. Tennessee will not have to play a Big 12 opponent in the first annual challenge between those two leagues, which replaces the old SEC/Big East Challenge. The event will take just 10 teams from both leagues, but the Vols will skip the event in 2013.