Jordan McRae is arguably Tennessee’s most valuable player.
As of late, he has certainly been the Vols' brightest star, scoring over 23 points in each of his past four games with a career-high 35 points in the Vols’ last game against Georgia.
His recent hot-handed performances haven't been totally unexpected, though. McRae entered the University of Tennessee with high expectations.
An all-state player at Liberty County High School, McRae was ranked the ninth rated shooting guard and the 47th best player in the nation by Rivals.com. He was a superior athlete and was skilled at shooting the ball and driving into the paint and finishing.
During his high school career, he played on several All-American teams, including the Adidas National Team and the 2K Preseason All-American Team.
Undoubtedly, the talent was there. His accolades spoke for themselves.
But it wasn't always smooth sailing for the 6-foot-5 junior guard from Midway, Ga.
Rather, his ability to overcome bumps along his path to success is what truly adds the exclamation point to McRae's recent play.
Struggling for playing time in his first year behind more experienced players such as Cameron Tatum, Scotty Hopson, and Skylar McBee, McRae only played in half of the first 18 games of the 2010-2011 season.
When he did see the court, he averaged just 5.7 minutes He failed to score more than six points all his appearances.
Last season, the team started the season off hot, winning their first seven games, including wins against two top seven teams on “neutral” sites.
But the Vols cooled off. They lost three close games in a row against lower ranked opponents and were 12-6 by the end of January.
Then came an incident on the team bus when in Connecticut to face No. 8 UConn.
According to a report on GoVolsXtra, McRae was involved in a verbal altercation with a teammate after touring the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn. He was told once to quiet down by an assistant coach in respect to the donors who were also on the bus.
But he continued to quarrel.
The report says he used a barrage of inappropriate language and had to be told again and again to calm down.
After getting back to the team hotel, then-head coach Bruce Pearl was informed of the incident.
McRae’s parents were called. Pearl suspended him indefinitely from practices and games thereafter for “a violation of team conduct.”
“Jordan has exhibited some behavior recently that is unacceptable and a distraction to the team,’’ Pearl said of the incident. “We’ll deal with this issue in-house, and my hope is that Jordan will use this as a learning and maturation opportunity.’’
McRae didn't play in the 15 remaining regular season and the conference tournament games that season.
He came on for two minutes in a humiliating first round loss in the NCAA Tournament to Michigan, but went 0 for 2 with no points.
After McRae’s disappointing freshman season, Tennessee’s head coach Bruce Pearl was fired amid allegations of recruiting violations and subsequent dishonesty to the NCAA by the coaching staff.
Later that month, Pearl was replaced by former Missouri State head coach Cuonzo Martin.
From day one, Martin preached “being successful on and off the court” to his players.
The saying has certainly had an affect on McRae.
Wearing a grin, McRae credits Martin for his development as not only a basketball player, but as a person.
“Just growing up on and off the court,” McRae said. “Having somebody like Coach Martin to care about you in more than just basketball helped me out a lot.”
With the departures of Hopson and Harris, McRae received increased playing time in his sophomore year, including a place in the starting lineup for the first 14 games of the season, scoring in double digits in half of those games.
However, McRae's play grew inconsistent. Then came the rise of transfer Jeronne Maymon, and the arrival of highly rated freshman Jarnell Stokes.
And once more, McRae found himself in a familiar position - coming off the bench.
But for McRae, seeing his name regularly appearing in the starting lineup to adjusting to a substitute role was not easy.
He failed to score more than two points in half of his first eight games as a sub.
But McRae had a new mindset.
Despite his demotion, he continued to work hard, bouncing back by scoring more than 12 points in five of his next seven games.
McRae's spark helped the team win eight of the last nine regular season games. He headed the Vols' late push for an NCAA Tournament bid, which came up just short.
With disciplinary issues as a freshman in the rearview and inconsistent play as a sophomore in the past, McRae entered this season determined to come back better than ever.
He slimmed down in the offseason. He set a record for most points scored in a game (64) in the Pilot Rocky Top League. He was all eyes forward.
When this season finally started, the Vols were without arguably their best player in forward Jeronne Maymon. They were in desperate need of someone to fill his shoes - not only as a player, but as a leader as well.
McRae was able to do just that.
While he was on the bench for all but one of UT's non-conference games, he still managed an average of 11.58 points per game.
Just the opposite of the previous season, McRae took his spot in the starting lineup in the first game of the SEC season.
And he welcomed his start with a 20 point performance.
During the Vols' most recent stretch, McRae has played at least 38 minutes in every game but one.
Once again, the Vols are making a late surge to try to get into the NCAA Tournament. But this time around they are hoping for a different result - one led by the hot hand of the redefined McRae.