On Jan. 22, 2011, few saw this coming.
Then-freshman Jordan McRae had just been suspended indefinitely from Tennessee's basketball team after a verbal altercation on the team bus with teammate Brian Williams.
He was reinstated six games later, only to see two minutes of action the rest of the season. That came in garbage time of a 75-45 NCAA tournament opening-round loss to Michigan—the day before head coach Bruce Pearl was fired amid an NCAA probe regarding his lying to investigators.
Some three-plus years later, a tearful McRae was helped off the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday night by UT reserves Galen Campbell and Brandon Lopez after his missed 60-foot desperation heave marked the end of a career.
A career that started at 18 points a season and ended at 19 points a game.
A career that saw the Vols defy a deafening amount of negativity and churn out a Sweet 16 run as an 11-seed, coming one ghastly charging call from referee David Hall shy of the Elite Eight.
A career that saw a potential-laden player with a mindset problem evolve into a polished NBA prospect and the heart and soul of this 2013-14 team.
A career that ended with McRae lying on his back in Indianapolis — defeated, but finally, a proven winner.
McRae's tumultuous freshman season essentially ended that fateful 2011 night on the team bus in Connecticut. And with a defensive-focused, no-nonsense head coach like Cuonzo Martin entering the fold, many wondered whether McRae — an offensive standout who doubled as a defensive liability early on—would make the transition.
The answer? Yes ... and no. Needing a scoring threat with Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris bolting for the NBA — or in Hopson's case, Europe — McRae cracked the starting lineup in Martin's first season at the helm.
He started strong, putting up a pair of 25-point outbursts back to back against Chaminade and Oakland. But he still needed work as a defender and decision-maker, and lost his starting spot to Josh Richardson before getting back into the lineup nearly a year later.
Then, the training wheels came off. And McRae took off.
In his first game back on the starting lineup, McRae scored 17 points as the Vols knocked off eventual Final Four team Wichita State.
Ten 20-point games and two 30-point games later, the then-junior was raking in all sorts of honors—SEC Player of the Year runner-up among them.
But as McRae would tell reporters nearly every time he was asked about his individual successes, he was missing the only thing he really wanted.
Two straight NIT appearances put a chip on this team's shoulders. That chip turned into a boulder largely thanks to Antwan Space and one certain petition.
So when the NCAA selection committee allowed the Vols to squeak into the tournament this year in the play-in game, Richardson's Twitter post said it best:
"We so hungry now," it read. "They done let us in... Bouta get icy."
Hungry may have been an understatement. After surviving overtime against Iowa, the Vols barreled through Raleigh and into the Sweet 16 after drubbings of Massachusetts and Mercer.
And up against the ropes versus Michigan, down eight with two minutes left in his career, McRae showed the fire that carried the Vols throughout this historic late-season run.
He dashed into the lane and finished with a 3-point play. Shortly after, he blocked his fourth shot of the game to keep the Vols alive with 43 seconds left.
One Michigan turnover later, McRae drove baseline and cut the UT deficit to one single point.
The rest is history.
McRae finished his senior season with 692 points—sixth most in a single season in Tennessee basketball history. And he did that as a perimeter player on a team that schemed to beat practically all of its opponents from the inside out.
But that's not what should be remembered.
In four years on Rocky Top, McRae developed from a locker-room problem to a locker-room leader. His growth, especially in the last season and a half, is a microcosm of the entire team.
Inspired by every one of McRae's highlight-reel dunks, barbaric yells or emphatic fist-pumps, Tennessee reached plateau after plateau this March.
It culminated with the Vols' fearless leader lying under the basket, tears flowing, one shot shy of knocking off last year's NCAA runners-up.
His teammates then surrounded him, picking his 6-foot-6, 185-pound frame up off a collegiate court for the last time.
Finally, someone other than McRae was doing the carrying.