Photo courtesy of Patrick Murphy-Racey, UT Athletics Digital Media
It’s a good 40 minutes after the final buzzer sounded to end Tennessee’s 77-58 win over Arkansas on Wednesday night, and Volunteer guard Skylar McBee, who could be the hottest shooter in the Southeastern Conference, is still signing autographs.
McBee is sporting the Pistol Pete Maravich NBA-era longish hair and the full-on mustache that he began this season with and doesn’t dare consider trimming, but that’s not what stands out about the 6-foot-3 junior guard on this night. No, the hair and the ’stache are trumped by McBee’s choice of t-shirt. Emblazoned on the front is a picture of Jimi Hendrix, guitarist extraordinaire.
Who knew McBee was a closet classic rock and roll freak?
McBee came by his love of the music in much the same way budding rock journalist William Miller did in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film “Almost Famous.” Remember how William’s older sister, played by Zooey Deschanel, passed on her collection of classic albums, thus changing his life forever?
“I guess you could say my sister is sort of hippieish,” McBee said. “She’s older than me, and she listened to classic rock. So that’s how I got into it. I love all sorts of music. It gets me fired up.”
McBee likes nothing better than to be the first one in the Vols’ locker room on game day, so he can choose the music.
“There’s a lot of rap played,” McBee said. “But if I get here early, I’ll plug my phone in and put on some classic rock before everybody gets here. It’s pretty funny when the guys get in there and start listening to it.”
Many nights, Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold,” or AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” have sent McBee onto the court, pumped up and ready for action.
If music-fueled adrenaline rushes were all that stood between McBee and success in college basketball, he would have been a star two years ago. But his quest has involved seeking something much more elusive - confidence.
McBee, who could have played for any number of mid-major schools, began his Tennessee career in 2009 as an invited walk-on, choosing to pay his own way for a chance to suit up for the team he grew up watching. For then-coach Bruce Pearl and his staff, the similarities between McBee and former Florida guard Lee Humphrey were too compelling to ignore. Both lived in close proximity to Knoxville, both were Tennessee fans, and both were jump shooters of uncommon ability.
Humphrey wasn’t offered a scholarship by Pearl’s predecessor, Buzz Peterson, so he went to Florida and helped the Gators win two consecutive national championships. Humphrey still holds the NCAA Tournament record for most 3-pointers in a career.
Tennessee didn’t have a scholarship available when McBee was a senior at Grainger High School in Rutledge, Tenn., but Pearl’s staff didn’t want him coming back to haunt them playing for another school. They offered a preferred walk-on deal with the promise of a scholarship the next season.
McBee earned that scholarship on Jan. 10, 2010, when his 3-pointer as the shot clock expired helped the Vols - shorthanded after the suspensions of four key players - upset No. 1 Kansas.
“McBee’s shot was worth how many hours in the gym?” Pearl said after the game. “When other kids were doing everything else, you could see McBee in the gym, practicing all night long. It paid off - the beautiful thing about sports.”
Despite that shot that instantly immortalized McBee in the annals of Tennessee basketball, his playing time was sporadic his first two seasons, his normally pure stroke hindered by uncertainty.
“My first two years, I wasn’t sure if coach Pearl wanted me to take the shot,” McBee said. “You get caught in the middle of should I shoot it or should I pass it. It’s so tough to shoot like that.
“I know there are some people who can do it, but when you’re known as a shooter, and you come in the game in the first half, miss your first shot and get taken out, then miss your first shot in the second half and get taken out, you’re done.”
Like a handful of other Tennessee players, McBee’s role changed after Pearl’s surprising ouster in the wake of NCAA rules violations. Pearl’s replacement, Cuonzo Martin, knew the Vols lacked firepower after freshman Tobias Harris and junior Scotty Hopson declared for the NBA Draft. McBee had the ability to fill a scoring void, but first Martin had some work to do.
“Coach Martin does a great job of putting you in position to be successful,” McBee said. “He’s been around a long time, and he knows what you can and can’t do. And when he says you can do something, it gives you a lot of confidence. You know he’s being honest with you. It’s boosted my confidence a whole lot by him just telling me he knows I can shoot, and that he wants me to shoot.”
McBee’s newfound confidence was evident from the start of this season. He drained 7 of 11 3-pointers in the Vols’ first two games, 13 of 25 in a three-game stretch in late December and early January and, despite an occasional off night, has become the Lee Humphrey-like shooter Pearl’s staff envisioned.
“It’s all about feeling comfortable out there and not thinking about it,” McBee said. “You can’t catch the ball and think about whether you’re going to shoot it. If you’re open, it’s just got to be a reaction, and you just shoot the ball.”
McBee’s confidence reached new heights four games ago when Martin inserted him into the starting lineup in place of point guard Trae Golden. Golden’s demotion was brief - he started the next game - but McBee stayed in the opening lineup, too, as a shooting guard.
McBee has been nothing if not consistent in his new role - in each of his last three games, against South Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas, he made 4 of 7 3-point shots. That 12-of-21 stretch has boosted his 3-point percentage to .423, fourth in the SEC.
Along with McBee’s success, so have the Vols been successful. They’ve won all four games he’s started, improving to 14-12 overall and 6-5 in the SEC.
Nothing McBee has done so far - including becoming a capable defender - has surprised Martin, who knew a weapon when he saw one.
“There are things we're doing in practice that get him where he's moving and not just a catch-and-shoot guy,” Martin said. “We spend a lot of time where he's running the baseline, running the perimeter, catching and shooting.
"And I tell him, ‘Sometimes, you've got to take a tough shot here and there.' Whether a guy's all over you, still shoot the ball, because it's on the other team's mind. You have to identify him on the floor. I tell him to take some tough shots, even if he misses them, because they still have to identify him on the floor.”
McBee could become the perfect poster boy for Martin’s philosophy. It matters little to Martin how recruiting analysts rate a player he wants in his program.
“You need good basketball players,” Martin said. “I’ve been around guys that were five-star recruits who weren’t very good, and I’ve been around two- or three-star guys who turned out to be great players. As a coach you have to identify and fit players to fit your program, and Skylar fits in my program.
“Skylar makes shots and plays hard, and we want him to shoot the ball and be aggressive. I can put a system in place, but you’ve got to feel good about getting up shots. And right now, Skylar is really shooting the ball with confidence.”