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.Subscribe to UPROXX
“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.”
While his freshman year featured many highs both individually and for the team, McBee’s sophomore year was a bit tougher. He still played about the same amount of time per game, and was even awarded a scholarship, but there was a black cloud surrounding the program and head coach Bruce Pearl’s status after an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations.
The team was up-and-down, winning the preseason NIT but then being mired with inconsistency the rest of the way. Their season mercilessly ended with a 30-point loss to Michigan in the first round of the NCAAs.
After the season, Pearl and his staff were let go and Cuonzo Martin was hired. The new head coach made an immediate impression on McBee.
“I think the first time me and Coach Martin sat down, he talked about his expectations as far as on the court for things he was looking for me to do, but also things off the court as far as doing the right things and really representing this program the right way,” he recalls. “He’s a really genuine guy so when he is sitting down with you and talking with you, you can see that he really cares about you, so it was a really easy transition going into that.”
While Martin makes it a point of emphasis to be a model citizen, he never needed to worry about that with McBee.
Part of the reason McBee is so beloved in Knoxville is because he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and doesn’t hold back from being a public persona. He participated in his hometown’s annual tomato festival and posted the video on YouTube, then grew out his infamous “McStache,” an ode to the mustache his father sported back in the ’70s. He is not one of those guys who thinks he is too cool for things. He is just Skylar. And people like him for that.
“Part of college is having a good time and joking around, and those are two things I really enjoy,” he says. “The tomato festival is something I try to be a part of every year, it is a special thing in my hometown and it is a great chance to see everybody from back home that I may not get to see during the season. It is really good for me to be a part of that and people from my hometown who got to see that video thought it was funny and it made them laugh.
“The mustache came about when I looked at some old pictures of my dad and he used to have a mustache back in the day in the ’70s and ’80s and I thought, ‘I could probably grow a pretty decent one.’ So I just let it grow and it ended up getting a lot of attention but I liked it. It was something that was funny and people got a good laugh out of it and I just kept it, and I still have it to this day.”
This honesty and willingness to laugh at himself, along with his distinct Tennessee accent, has won McBee the hearts of many fans.
But this past season, he also became known for more than just his personality and his shot against Kansas.
With Tennessee losing a lot of talent from the 2010-11 season, including Hopson, Harris, Melvin and Williams, McBee was one of the more experienced players returning. He started the season coming off the bench, but towards the end of the year, he became the team’s starting shooting guard and started the team’s last 12 games as they fought to make the NCAA Tournament.
He brought his three-point shooting into the game, but his role evolved from the “white guy who can shoot” into a more complete player. While three-point shooting will always be his trademark, McBee expanded his game to other areas (most notably defensively and as a point guard leader).
Despite not being the strongest or the fastest player on the floor, few fight as hard off screens or close out faster than McBee does. Martin saw that and tasked him with guarding some of the SEC’s premier scorers last season such as Doron Lamb, John Jenkins and Kenny Boynton, and kept them in check for spurts. He also played point guard at times and while it is not his natural position, he did it because he was asked to. That’s what makes McBee unique. He knows everything he has is a privilege and an unbelievable opportunity, and he takes nothing for granted and wants nothing given to him.
“Personally, my expectations are to do whatever I need to do to help the team win and take whatever role that may be to help us win basketball games,” he says of his expectations for this season. “Whether that is starting or sitting on the bench being a cheerleader, cheering on the other guys, I’m willing to do whatever I need to do for this team to win.”
When most guys say they are willing to sit on the bench and cheer on their teammates, it will be obvious they are not being genuine. In fact, when most starters at any level of basketball are asked about their individual expectations for the coming season, they will likely talk about expanding their role or doing whatever it takes ON the court to help their team win. They will never mention sitting on the bench being a cheerleader.
When McBee says it, you believe him.
You really believe the individual stats don’t matter and that if he didn’t play a single minute all season this year and Tennessee won the NCAA title, he’d be just as happy as if he started every game. He loves the experience. That is what is most important to him about playing at Tennessee, and that’s why he went from a walk-on to a scholarship player to the starting guard – he cares so much about doing what is best for the team.
“I would sum it up as a great opportunity and a huge chapter in my life that I thank God every day for,” he says of his experience at Tennessee. It’s a great experience to play at a school where I’ve always dreamed of playing and to play with the guys I have and also where it is close enough to my family that they can come watch me and where I am close enough to them that I can see them. It’s just been amazing.”
What do you think?
Follow Daniel on Twitter at @dgm591.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.