Pressing on

As a basketball player's role increases, so does the pressure to produce. One Tennessee freshman discovered as much Thursday night.

Playing more minutes vs. Belmont (19) than he had in the Vols' first 10 games combined (18), Jordan McRae had ample opportunity to show why he is such an enigma.

- The 6-6, 185-pounder from Midway, Ga., used his dynamic leaping ability to block three shots but he also lost his man on defense several times.

- He drained his first 3-point try - connecting from the right baseline - but air-balled two subsequent attempts.

- He used his superior quickness to maneuver into the lane four times, only to miss all four shots and finish 1 for 7 from the field.

- He exhibited a smooth stroke on some of his free throws but still finished just 3 of 7 from the line.

- He contributed 4 rebounds and a steal but also committed 2 turnovers in his 19-minute relief stint.

Ultimately, the main thing Jordan McRae exhibited Thursday night was nerves. Highly emotional, he feeds off his emotions when he's playing well but struggles to control them when he isn't. If he ever develops the poise in games that he displays in practice, he'll be a star. Until then, he'll remain an enigma.

"I was just trying to play my game," he said following the Vols' 66-65 defeat of the Bruins. "The coaches were telling me before the game to just play like I play in practice."

Clearly pressing, McRae fell well short of that achieving that goal.

"This was like my first real game that I've played," he explained. "Some of the air balls ... you know, playing in front of 17,000 for the first time is a lot of pressure."

That pressure is increased when a guy who was a 40-minute man in high school is reduced to mop-up minutes in college. That was the case for McRae in Games 1 through 10.

"Coach (Bruce Pearl) told me I was a great offensive player - that he knew what I could do on offense - but that I had to start playing defense," he explained. "Tonight I really concentrated on keeping my man in front of me. I didn't want to give no reason to be back to where I was (on the bench)."

If McRae can get his nerves settled, he could solve a season-long problem for the Vols - the absence of a dependable backup behind first-team small forward Cameron Tatum. Steven Pearl, son of Tennessee's head man, has been filling that role lately, although he is much better suited to power forward.

"We've had issues backing up the 3 all year," Bruce Pearl said. "Jordan McRae did a nice job, particularly in that he didn't get exposed too much defensively. He had three blocks and, without him, we may not win."

McRae knew beforehand that his minutes would be increasing Thursday night.

"Coach told me I was going to get a lot more run than I had in past games because Steven Pearl wasn't a 3; he was just playing the position," McRae recalled.

Because Tatum injured his ribs diving for a loose ball and spent most of the final 20 minutes on the bench, McRae wound up playing 10 second-half minutes. Once the freshman saw that his shots weren't falling, he increased his efforts on the defensive end of the floor.

"I had to play defense," he said. "Coach knows what I can do on offense."

All in all, McRae was pleased with his first meaningful opportunity to play.

"It was my first game and I had to get out the little jitters," he said. "But when I get back (from holiday break), I should be ready to go. I think I'll be fine next time. I think I'll be feeling normal."

And "normal" for Jordan McRae could be exceptional. That's the word from teammate Melvin Goins.

"Jordan's coming along great," the Vols' senior point guard said. "He had a great week of practice. Just to see him out there making some key plays - on the defensive end and the offensive end - was good.

"He was aggressive. Even though his shots may not have been falling, he was aggressive and got to the spots well. It was a good game for him to get the butterflies out and get back in the rotation. I think he'll be a good asset for our team. He has a lot of athletic ability. That'll be a good thing for him and for us."


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