Vols' McRae heats up while his teammates struggle
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)
The Vols have not been able to capitalize on the best stretch of the junior's career.
He has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games, all Tennessee losses. The Volunteers have dropped their first three Southeastern Conference games for the first time since 1997-98.
The Vols (8-7, 0-3 SEC) will try to avoid going 0-4 in conference play for the first time since 1993-94 on Saturday when they host Mississippi State (7-8, 2-1). The losing streak has given McRae no reason to celebrate the best individual stretch of his career.
''I still feel bad that we lost,'' McRae said. ''The points don't cross my mind at all. At the end of the day, I want to win. That's all I'm about, just winning. We haven't done it lately.''
McRae certainly has done his part.
The 6-foot-5 McRae leads the SEC with 23.3 points per game in conference play. McRae has a team-high 13.9 points per game overall this season, although he didn't enter the starting lineup until last week. He's the first Tennessee player to score 20-plus points in four straight games since Chris Lofton in 2008.
''I'm attacking more and being more aggressive than I've ever been in college,'' McRae said.
McRae's surge followed a discussion with Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who told him to start shooting more often. McRae didn't attempt more than 10 shots in any of Tennessee's first 11 games. He has shot 34 of 67 over his last four games.
''I said to him two or three weeks ago, `If you're a scorer, then be that,' '' Martin said. ''I don't know too many scorers who leave games on a consistent basis with six or seven shots. If you're a scorer, get 12-15 shots and get to the free-throw line. It's the same thing I tell Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. Those guys have the ability to score the ball. They have to get shots up.''
The Vols need to give McRae some help.
Tennessee doesn't have anyone else averaging more than 8.3 points per game in conference play. McRae was the only Vol to score in double figures in each of Tennessee's last two games, a 68-65 loss at Alabama and a 75-65 setback at Kentucky.
The Vols were picked before the season to finish fourth in the SEC, but they've run into plenty of roadblocks.
Jeronne Maymon, a second-team all-SEC forward last year, won't play a minute this season because of an injured left knee. Golden, the Vols' leading scorer last season, has fallen out of the starting lineup and hasn't exceeded eight points in any of his last five games.
Stokes, the Vols' best pro prospect, has made more than three baskets in just three of Tennessee's last 10 games. Senior guard Skylar McBee, the team's top outside shooter, has made just 31.6 percent of his 3-point attempts as he plays through a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
McRae said he started asserting himself more on offense because he realized that's what the team needed.
''Seeing Trae struggle a little bit and with the news that Jaronne would be out the whole year, I felt that somebody had to step up on the offensive end,'' McRae said.
Tennessee's entire team must step up soon to have any hope of meeting preseason expectations.
The Vols have bounced back from slow starts before. They dropped three of their first four league games last year and ended up tied for second in the SEC with a 10-6 conference record. The last Tennessee team to start 0-3 in SEC play went on to reach the 1998 NCAA tournament.
''There's always a sense of urgency, but I think there's a difference between urgency and panic,'' Martin said. ''For us, it's not panic mode but a sense of urgency to want to get back in stride.''
This game represents a reunion of sorts for Martin and Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, who worked together as Purdue assistants from 2006-08. Mississippi State, which has just seven healthy scholarship players, won its first two conference games before falling 75-43 to Alabama on Wednesday.
''I know Cuonzo Martin, and they're going to compete,'' Ray said. ''We better be ready to get out there and compete. This isn't going to be an X's and O's situation. This is going to be about this: Are you ready to play competitive basketball?''
The Vols must be ready as well.
A loss would give them their worst SEC start in nearly two decades. A victory would back up their confidence that they can rebound from a slow start for a second straight season.
''This can still be turned around,'' McRae said, ''and I think we will.''
AP Sports Writer David Brandt of Starkville, Miss., contributed to this report.