Tennessee reserves have been ultra-productive lately. After combining for 24 points in Game 9 at College of Charleston, 28 in Game 10 versus UNC Asheville and 18 in Game 11 against ETSU, Vol backups produced a whopping 50 points in Thursday's 86-55 Game 12 blowout of The Citadel.
Junior guard Skylar McBee has been Tennessee's most consistent substitute of late — posting 9 points versus Austin Peay, 9 versus Charleston, 4 versus Asheville, 12 versus ETSU and 12 more versus The Citadel. That five-game stretch saw him drain 15 of 36 shots from 3-point range, a 41.7 percentage.
Essentially a stand-still shooter, McBee is especially effective against zone defenses. He's quite content being the Vols' designated zone buster.
"Whatever I have to do to come in and help our team and give us the best chance to win, that's what I'm going to do," he said. "Some nights that may be taking more shots, and some nights it may be just playing good defense. Whatever that role is, I'm going to come in and do it to the best of my abilities and, hopefully, put us in the best position to win."
Senior Renaldo Woolridge, though wildly inconsistent, also put up some good numbers off the bench over the past few games. He scored 17 points versus Asheville, 6 versus ETSU and 10 versus The Citadel, while going 7 of 12, 3 of 6 and 4 of 6 from the field. The 6-foot-9 forward was 4 of 8 from 3 during that stretch, providing a nice inside-out dimension.
"I want to continue to help on the inside and on the wing," he said. "I feel more confident in my scoring. I just need to do what Coach wants me to do; that is be more aggressive in rebounding and be a spark plug off the bench."
Several Vols have provided occasional sparks off the bench this season. Junior Dwight Miller scored 13 first-half points against Charleston and freshman Yemi Makanjuola produced 18 second-half points against The Citadel. Then there are freshmen Josh Richardson and Wes Washpun, who rarely score but fortify the Vol defense each time they take the floor.
The bottom line is this: Tennessee reserves have made solid contributions lately and will be a crucial element once SEC play begins on Saturday.
"The way they're playing, it means we have to step up our game or we're going to lose our starting positions," first-team point guard Trae Golden quipped. "It really gives us confidence, though, knowing our bench is that good."
McBee believes Vol reserves are thriving because they have clearly defined roles, which is a credit to head coach Cuonzo Martin.
"We're comfortable," McBee said. "Coming in, you know where you're supposed to score at, what things you're supposed to do and not do. You have 100 percent confidence in what Coach Martin wants you to do, and he has 100 percent confidence in our abilities. There's no doubt there. There's no hesitation. That makes it a whole lot easier to play."
McBee and Woolridge are offensive-minded players who tend to come off the bench shooting.
"Coach really wants Skylar and me to score off the bench," Woolridge said. "That's kind of our role, and we're able to find where we can score in the offense."
Even when McBee and Woolridge aren't scoring, they earn their playing time via hustle. That's why McBee played 26 minutes in Game 10 versus UNC Asheville, despite going 1 for 7 from the field. And that's why he and Woolridge have emerged as the top reserves in recent weeks.
"Coach told me as soon as he came here that, with my athleticism, all I have to do is play as hard as I can," Woolridge recalled. "I try to do that every game, offensively and defensively. I try to make sure I'm active at all times, trying to make things happen."
Because Martin demands all-out effort on defense, the starters need occasional breathers. Obviously, having capable reserves to fill in while the first-teamers rest is vitally important.
"It's important to be deep, playing as intense as we do on defense," McBee said. "You get tired, so you need that guy to come in and give you a minute or two blow before you get back out there."
As a group Vol reserves have a common goal: To be just as effective as the starters.
"Our mindset is that there's no drop-off," Woolridge said.
Martin fosters this mindset by treating his reserves the same as his starters.
"The big thing Coach does in practice is he never has two set lineups," Woolridge noted. "He always mixes things up, so you never have a feeling of 'Here's the second unit. Here's the first unit.' When the bench guys go in we feel like we're all equal. I think that contributes to the level of play."
Because the Vols have bought into Martin's team concept the backups stay focused on helping the starters, not just replacing them.
"You have to accept your role on the team," McBee said. "It's got to be about the team, not the individual. We do a good job of that. Guys who come off the bench want their starters to do well, and I think the starters want the guys off the bench to do well. It's not a question of who's off the bench and who's starters.
"We're Tennessee, and we're a team."
Thanks to its reserves, that "team" carries a three-game winning streak into tonight's game.
NOTES: UT Chattanooga's athletics director is Rick Hart, son of Tennessee AD Dave Hart.... Moccasin freshman Ronrico White, a graduate of Knoxville's Bearden High School, is the son of former Vol great Tony White.... The Mocs are expected to start 6-foot-9 Drazen Zlovaric (9.8 points per game), 6-foot-6 Jahmal Burroughs (2.9 ppg), 6-foot-5 Omar Wattad (12.9 ppg), 6-foot-5 Ricky Taylor (12.6 ppg) and 6-foot-1 Keegan Bell (7.8 ppg).... Chattanooga features two transfers from high-major schools. Zlovaric began his career at Georgia, Wattad at Georgetown. A graduate of Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Wattad starred against the Vols as a Georgetown freshman in 2008, hitting 3 of 3 shots from 3-point range in a 9-point, 5-rebound, 15-minute relief effort. Last season, however, he went just 4 of 17 from the field (1 of 11 from 3) as Tennessee mauled the Mocs 82-62 in the 2010-11 opener. Bell led UTC with 20 points in that game.... Tennessee and Chattanooga have one common opponent this year. The Mocs lost 85-87 at College of Charleston in double overtime on Dec. 3. Tennessee lost 65-71 at Charleston 11 days later.... UTC suffered 25-point losses against two teams ranked in the current Associated Press top 25, falling 53-78 at No. 13 Indiana on Nov. 13 and 62-87 at No. 3 Kentucky on Dec. 17. The Mocs have won three games in a row since bowing to the Big Blue.... Tennessee leads the all-time series with Chattanooga 32-5, having won 26 of the last 27 meetings. The Mocs last prevailed on Dec. 5, 2004, beating Buzz Peterson's final Vol squad 69-68 at Thompson-Boling Arena.... UTC brings a 6-8 record into tonight's game at TBA, with TV coverage provided by SportSouth.