'Statement' game

Tennessee basketball fans were expecting the spectacular from him last season but the only thing he did that was even vaguely magical was disappear.

After starting the Vols' 2010-11 exhibition opener as a true freshman, Jordan McRae all but vanished into thin air. He played in just 10 of 34 regular-season games and averaged a mere 1.8 points per contest. Coming off of that colossal disappointment, the electrifying 6-foot-5 sophomore is determined to make amends in 2011-12 ... starting with tonight's 7 o'clock exhibition opener versus Carson-Newman.

"I see this as a statement game," McRae said. "This is more than one of those games you play before you get to play real games."

Although he clearly wants to prove himself in the wake of his freshman flop, McRae also wants to prove that Tennessee basketball is a lot healthier than preseason projections suggest. His teammates feel the same.

"It's not just me. It's everybody on our team," he said. "We've got a brand new team, a whole new era, a whole new face of Tennessee."

McRae exhibited some immaturity last season, showing frustration when things went badly ... which was much of the time he was on the floor. He seems to have grown up a lot since then.

"I'm just trying to do everything I can to help win games here," he said. "I'm learning to be calmer. I want to play with the same passion but channel it in the right way. I'm looking forward to a great season."

McRae showed a knack for getting to the rim last season but made just 1 of 9 shots from 3-point range. That shouldn't happen again. Near the end of Wednesday's practice he took 13 shots from the deep left wing, draining 10 of them.

"I've been working on my shooting a lot," he said. "I've always been able to drive but developing my shot will help my offense, give me the complete package."

Tennessee's 3-point shoot was abysmal last season. The Vols finished 11th in the 12-team SEC with a 30.0 percentage beyond the arc. McRae says he isn't the only Vol who has improved his long-range stroke since then.

"Trae (Golden) can hit a lot of shots at the point," he said. "You know what Cam (Tatum) can do, and we've got a couple of bigs who can step out and hit shots — Renaldo Woolridge and Kenny Hall. I think we're going to be a team that can score inside and out."

Moments after Wednesday's practice ended, McRae showed off his freakish athleticism. After positioning freshman teammate Josh Richardson five feet from the basket, McRae got a running start, then soared over the rookie's 6-foot-6 frame — clearing his head with inches to spare — and slammed home a thunderous dunk.

McRae's acrobatic ability and offensive mindset enabled him to average a mind-boggling 45.7 points per game during the Rocky Top League last summer. Those traits make him a potential 20-points-per-game scorer for the offensively challenged Vols this season.

"He's a great scorer," junior center Kenny Hall said. "You saw what he could do in the Rocky Top League, averaging like 50 points a game. Obviously, scoring is his strong point, so we want to see him get better at getting boards and playing defense."

McRae's rebounding and defending already have improved and should continue to do so. Tatum sees a new attitude and a new intensity level in his teammate this fall, noting: "Jordan is ready to step up and show what he's capable of doing at that wing spot."

Asked what he sees different in McRae this season, Hall smiled smugly, then quipped, "Other than the fact that he's playing?"

Turning serious, Hall added: "His attitude has gotten a lot better. He's a lot hungrier."

Like the rest of the veteran Vols, McRae is eager to start 2011-12 and put the nightmarish 2010-11 season out of his mind. Distracted by a season-long NCAA investigation into recruiting violations, the Big Orange closed with a humiliating 30-point loss to Michigan in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament, then saw head coach Bruce Pearl fired three days later.

Thus, tonight represents a new chapter and a fresh start.

"We've been waiting for this since last year," McRae said. "We're really excited and ready to go."

Especially the guy whose only notable achievement of 2010-11 was a confounding disappearing act.

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