Chemistry lesson

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Basketball, like chemistry, is all about getting the right mixture of ingredients. Often as not, the key ingredient is neither powerful nor dynamic. It's merely a catalyst that brings the other ingredients together.

That being said, the catalyst in Tennessee basketball's three-game winning streak is ... wait for it ... Skylar McBee.

As ingredients go, he is neither powerful nor dynamic. But the 6-foot-3 junior from Rutledge has started three games in a row and the Vols have won three games in a row, including a stunning upset of No. 8 Florida Saturday at Gainesville.

Facetiously asked before Monday's practice about the fact Tennessee has never lost a game with him starting, McBee was taken aback. First, he stammered. Then he laughed. Finally, he responded:

"Well, it's early. We've won what ... three games? I guarantee that will happen sometime."

True. But the Vols haven't lost with McBee on the floor for the opening tip yet.

Starting at point guard in Game 23 versus Georgia, he made just 1 of 4 shots and did not record an assist. He drained 7 of 8 foul shots, however, and committed just 1 turnover in 20 minutes as Tennessee prevailed.

Returning to his familiar off-guard role, McBee was a more potent ingredient in Game 24 versus South Carolina. He sank 4 of 7 shots (all 3-pointers) and 6 of 6 foul shots en route to a career-high 18 points.

He followed with another 4-of-7 outing (all 3-pointers), finishing with 13 points in a career-high 38 minutes at Florida.

McBee's totals for the past three games are hardly spectacular — 41 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal. He made 9 of 18 shots from 3-point range, however, loosening up opposing defenses to create operating room for his Vol teammates.

"It definitely opens things up a lot more for us inside ... less double teams and stuff like that," junior center Kenny Hall said. "Teams can't pack it in as much. If they do, we've got a dangerous threat on the outside."

Being the modest type, McBee downplays his role. The former walk-on struggled to respond when asked about Tennessee being 9-0 this season when he scores 10 points or more.

"I don't know," he said with a laugh. "If I'm scoring in double figures or not scoring ... whatever it takes to win is what I want to do."

Basically, what McBee must do to help Tennessee win is provide long-range baskets on offense and all-out hustle on defense.

"Hopefully, I bring some energy, hit open shots and go 100 percent on defense," he said. "I think that's something I can bring to our team."

Much as a football coach tells his quarterback to throw deep occasionally to keep defenders from massing to stop the run, Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin tells McBee to fire from long range to keep defenders from massing to stop the post game.

"I tell him to take some tough shots, even if he misses them, because they still have to identify him on the floor," Martin said. "When you're a real shooter you've got to be able to take and make tough shots, and he's starting to do that."

Starting seems to be helping McBee's shooting. Instead of coming off the bench cold and trying to provide a quick fix, he has time to settle into a rhythm — knowing he'll stay on the floor even if his first couple of shots miss the mark. That's good for a shooter's psyche.

"It always helps us to have a rhythm in the game," McBee said. "It helps your confidence when you shoot two or three in a row; you kind of get a feel for the way your shot is going to go. It's a little bit easier.

"If you pride yourself on being a shooter, though, you've got to be able to come off the bench and hit one, too. Hopefully, whatever situation I'm in, I'll be able to do that."

Although McBee insists starting hasn't changed him, his confidence appears to be soaring since he joined the lineup. Showing considerable spunk, he even responded to some heckling from the Florida student section Saturday in Gainesville.

"Florida has a really good setup; the students are all down the sidelines, and you can hear everything they're saying," McBee said. "I don't know that I'd say I was jawing with 'em but I got into it a little bit, just having fun."

Basketball hasn't always been this fun. There was an eight-game stretch late last season when he failed to play double-digit minutes a single time, spending all 40 minutes of one game on the bench. This season McBee played just seven minutes in Game 7 versus Pittsburgh and four minutes in the Game 15 meeting with Florida at Knoxville. Still, he never got discouraged and never complained.

"I think it helps being a coach's son, knowing that you have to trust in his system," McBee said. "You have to trust that he's doing the best thing for our team. I think if you put winning above all else, your attitude's going to be the same all the time.

"If he needs you, you're going to go in and play the hardest you can play. If not, you're going to sit on the bench, be a good teammate and cheer. You've just got to stay even (tempered) throughout the season because sometimes your number's going to be called and sometimes it ain't. That's just the way the game works."

Skylar McBee's number has been called three games in a row. Tennessee has won three games in a row. That's no coincidence. He may not be a star but he's a catalyst.

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