Upon first glance, Skylar McBee does not look like a Division I basketball player. Maybe it’s the mop of long hair on his head that flops directionless when he runs up and down the court. Maybe it’s because he’s listed at 6-3 but is probably closer to 6-0. Or maybe it is the year-old mustache that seems suited more for a man going through his mid-life crisis than a 21-year-old college basketball player.
Whatever it is, when someone walks into Thompson-Boling Arena and sees McBee standing on the floor in his warmup jacket alongside physical specimens like Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris and Jarnell Stokes, it is easy to wonder how he got there.
He looks like the type of kid who probably dominated high school ball — a small, scrawny guy who could shoot the lights out but doesn’t belong with the big boys in the SEC, but rather playing pickup at the Tennessee Student Rec Center. He’s the type of guy who never quite knows he isn’t good enough, but because nobody ever tells him so he just goes out there and plays. McBee understands this perception may be out there, but it doesn’t bother him much.
“You could definitely pick me out on our team,” McBee says, laughing. “I’m not a 6-7, 6-8 guy. I am smaller. I am shorter. So I guess if you could say there is a guy on our team who looks like they didn’t play Division I basketball it would be me.”
While he does not have the look of a prototypical high-major player, McBee is the starting shooting guard for Tennessee, no small distinction for a former walk-on. Growing up in Rutledge, Tenn., about 45 miles east of UT’s Knoxville campus, McBee was a Tennessee fan, adoring the Volunteer football and basketball teams. When he realized he had the chance to play college basketball and that it was an opportunity he wanted to take advantage of, there was really only one choice for him: Tennessee.
“I’m a Tennessee guy,” McBee says. “It was always a dream of mine to play here. I told my parents early on when I wanted to play college basketball that I wanted to play here and when the opportunity came up to play here, it was really something I wanted to do.”
Despite having scholarship offers from smaller Division I schools like Marshall, Winthrop and East Carolina, McBee chose to walk on with the Vols, even though playing time was likely going to be minimal.
Tennessee already had a talented and deep backcourt led by Scotty Hopson that also included Melvin Goins, Cam Tatum and Bobby Maze. There wasn’t much room for McBee on the court.
Even though the Vols had a deep backcourt, McBee found his way onto the court right away. He made his presence felt primarily with his three-point shooting and ability to stretch the floor, but was also the type of scrappy, hard-nosed player who never gave up on any given play.
However, McBee’s big break came at a crossroads for the Tennessee program. On Jan. 1, 2010, four Tennessee players were pulled over for speeding in Knoxville. When police stopped the vehicle, there was a strong marijuana smell and officers searched the car and found two firearms, as well as drugs, in the vehicle. The four players were Brian Williams, Cam Tatum, Melvin Goins and Tyler Smith. All four were integral parts of the team’s rotation and this incident threatened to jeopardize the entire season.
As the facts were being gathered, head coach Bruce Pearl suspended all four players indefinitely. The first game they missed was against Charlotte, an easy 88-71 victory for Tennessee. The second game they missed, however, was against then-No. 1 Kansas. The game was on ESPN and was supposed to feature two of the nation’s top teams, but with four rotation players missing, Tennessee was a heavy underdog. McBee was called upon to play 23 minutes, and he hit one of the most famous shots in Tennessee history: an off-balance, leaner from three that put the Vols’ up six late in the game. The bucket sent the crowd into a pandemonium, and sealed the victory.
“It was a very special thing,” McBee says. “We were shorthanded that game and we were huge underdogs, and it was such a great atmosphere to play in with the No. 1 team in the nation coming into Thompson-Boling and ESPN being there.
“It was just a great environment and I really think as a team we tried to do everything we could to win that game and prove that even though we were shorthanded we could still play and I think we did that. It was really special for me, not only to hit that shot, but to win that game and share that with all my teammates.”
After that game McBee became a folk hero in Knoxville. Already recognized as a hometown kid and the scrappy walk-on, the fans became infatuated with McBee after this shot. It would be easy to pinpoint that as the highlight of his career — a walk-on hitting the game-clinching shot against the No. 1 team in the nation. It’d be hard to top. He had his one shining moment, and the fans would love him forever because of it. McBee didn’t expect to do do something like that again.
The rest of the season, McBee continued to see time on the floor, but as the suspended players (other than Smith, who was dismissed from the team) came back, his playing time began to decrease. He didn’t play more than 10 minutes in any of the team’s final seven regular season games, and only played a total of five minutes in the team’s first two games of the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee eventually reached the Elite Eight and was one point away from the Final Four.
Despite not playing much, McBee cherishes that experience.
“It was a great experience just getting to be a part of that and see all those guys and the things they did and getting to that point was just unbelievable,” he says. “As a freshman you come in that’s an experience you can learn from and will never forget the rest of your life. That’s one of (the) things you can tell your kids one day. I was just thankful for the opportunity to be on that team and have that experience.”