By Steve Williams
I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna miss Skylar McBee.
Oh sure, there have been many better University of Tennessee basketball players over the years, but no one has competed any harder than McBee, who is scheduled to play his last home game this coming Saturday when Tennessee hosts Missouri in the regular season finale.
Let’s just say, that well-known phrase – “I gave my all for Tennessee” – fits Skylar to a, well, T.
And when they introduce No. 13 at the Senior Day festivities, I expect you’ll be able to hear the roar all the way back to Rutledge, McBee’s hometown.
Skylar has earned an extended ovation, but my guess is he’s looking at the upcoming moment in the spotlight as being just as much for others. Family members, old friends back home and fans who he’s never met will have the opportunity to share in it and enjoy it as they express their feelings of appreciation for the job he’s been glad to do.
I never saw McBee play in high school, but I had heard and read a lot about him. He started his prep career at Rutledge High and finished at the new Grainger High School, built just a mile or so up the highway outside of Rutledge. His dad had been a high school coach for years. Skylar had the reputation of being a great outside shooter.
When I learned A.W. Davis, who starred at Rutledge High and was an All-American at Tennessee in the 1960s, had encouraged former coach Bruce Pearl to give McBee a look, that was enough for me to write a column, urging UT to sign the “home grown product.”
As it turned out, McBee declined scholarships from Santa Clara, East Carolina, Marshall and Winthrop and accepted an opportunity from Pearl to walk on at Tennessee. That right there showed how much he wanted to be a Vol.
The summer prior to his freshman campaign at UT, I got the chance to meet McBee and interview him after he had played in a Rocky Top League game at Bearden High. By just talking with him, you could tell he was All-Vol. And he was the type of kid you wanted to see succeed.
Since the “Rutledge Rifle” moniker had long been bestowed upon A.W., I suggested Skylar could be the “Grainger Gunner.”
McBee, however, didn’t become the prolific gunner we had hoped he would in his collegiate career, and while some UT fans got a little down on him, I never quit pulling for him. Every time he took a shot, I hoped it would go in. I still do, and fortunately more of his shots have been finding the mark here lately as he appears to have recovered from an elbow injury sustained in the game against Georgetown in late November.
Coach Cuonzo Martin has never lost faith in Skylar, either. Earlier this season, when McBee was receiving some criticism for his below-par marksmanship, I heard the coach say no one cared more about UT basketball than McBee. Coach Martin kept Skylar in the starting lineup, because he knew he was still contributing in other ways – with his hustle, with his determination as a defender, with his leadership as a veteran senior.
With the emergence of Jordan McRae’s outside scoring, McBee eventually lost his starting job. But I never saw him sulk or complain or put his head down. He accepted his new role the way a team player should and played just as hard when he was called to go in.
Skylar has had big moments wearing the Tennessee uniform. The biggest to date came very early in his UT career. His clutch, off-balance 3-pointer late in the undermanned Vols’ surprising win over top-ranked Kansas at Thompson-Boling Arena his freshman season was called “the shot heard ’round America.”
But McBee also has had his low marks. I little over a month ago, McBee was struggling so badly, his “Mountain Man beard” was attracting more attention than his shot-making. He was not in the starting lineup against Alabama on Jan. 26, played only 10 minutes and was 0 for 3. But he officially came out of his shooting slump with three 3-point baskets in the win against Vanderbilt Jan. 29. He also made a huge 3-point shot late in Tennessee’s first road win at South Carolina Feb. 10, a victory that ignited the Vols’ winning streak.
McBee continued to contribute off the bench, with a 3-for-3 performance from 3-point range in the 30-point blowout of Kentucky. He had a solid all-round game in that four-overtime road win at Texas A&M. Playing 48 minutes, he collected a career-high seven rebounds and turned in a strong defensive performance as he helped guard Aggies standout Elston Turner. He also swished in three 3-pointers, including the dagger in the fourth OT.
McBee bombed in another big 3 from the corner as the Vols turned back No. 5 ranked Florida last week. And down the stretch of that close game, there was Skylar spotting a loose ball just inside the baseline and fearlessly diving into the pile of Gators to get his hands on it, with the possession arrow pointing the Vols’ way.
A hustle play like that doesn’t show up in the box score.
But it’s a big part of the reason why I’m gonna miss Skylar.