Walk-on vs. All-American

This must be "The Year of the Walk-On" in Tennessee athletics.

Three walk-ons have started games for the Football Vols this fall - middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, center Cody Sullins and guard Cory Sullins. Now it seems the hottest story for the Basketball Vols is another walk-on.

Incredibly, Skylar McBee is playing so well that he is putting some heat on former McDonald's All-American Scotty Hopson for the first-team job at shooting guard.

McBee, a 6-2 freshman from Rutledge, isn't as tall or as athletic as Hopson, a 6-7 sophomore, but he's equally dangerous from 3-point range on offense and he's a bit more determined on defense.

With Friday's season opener vs. Austin Peay rapidly approaching, UT head coach Bruce Pearl conceded that McBee has "a strangle-hold on the reserve minutes" at shooting guard and continues to challenge Hopson for the first-team job.

McBee has been so impressive, in fact, that he has bumped 6-6 sophomore Cameron Tatum, who played a lot of shooting guard in 2008-09, to small forward.

"Cameron can play the 2," Pearl said. "He knows the position, played it a year ago and will be available in (case of) foul trouble and other situations. But Skylar has established himself that he's going to be in the regular rotation."

McBee hit 6 of 12 shots from 3-point range in the Vols' two preseason exhibition games. That didn't surprise Pearl, however.

"You could anticipate that he was going to come in and make open shots," the coach said. "And you anticipated he would come in and be one of your hardest workers, if not your hardest worker. You anticipated that the love of putting on that jersey and representing Tennessee was going to be an incredible motivating factor. And you knew he'd play hard defensively.

"What you COULDN'T anticipate was that he'd actually make plays defensively. He actually makes plays in pressure - anticipating, reading. Being 6-2 and a freshman, there will be times when he could be challenged at his position based on the matchup. But that won't be every night. It will be against your biggest, strongest, most athletic type of 2-guard playing in the SEC."

After averaging 24 points per game as a senior at Grainger County High, McBee got several scholarship offers from Div. 1 mid-major schools but none from high-major schools. Thus, there was some question as to whether he could play for a high-major such as Tennessee. Pearl says that question has been answered.

"He absolutely belongs," the coach said.

The primary obstacle between McBee and a first-team job is the fact Hopson had a sensational preseason offensively, hitting 15 of 19 shots (78.9 percent) from the floor and 6 of 8 (75 percent) from 3 en route to a pair of 20-point outings. He is not the team's most dedicated defender, however, and that is enabling McBee to challenge him for superiority at the off-guard position.

It's amazing to think of a walk-on challenging a former McDonald's All-American but Pearl doesn't view the competition that way.

"Skylar walked on his first year, knowing full well that he would be earning a scholarship during his time here," the coach said. "It's hard to look at him as a walk-on."

Apparently, Tennessee's players feel the same way. From all indications, they consider McBee an equal.

"Players recognize other players that can play," Pearl said. "It didn't take long for our team to learn to respect him and his game. For me, it doesn't matter whether you're on scholarship or not ... what year you are. If you can play you can play."

Senior point guard Bobby Maze is a McBee fan. He believes the slender freshman's superior shooting range will open up opposing defenses in the season to come.

"I think he can stretch a defense," Maze said. "His shooting is going to help us a lot. Last year that's one thing I'd say we struggled a bit with - 3-point shooting when some teams played a zone or they played off. With Skylar on that wing, it's going to create driving opportunities for us."

Like many walk-ons, McBee offsets shortcomings in height and athleticism with an abundance of grit and determination.

"One thing I was surprised about was his work ethic," Maze said. "He gets more shots up (in practice) than anybody on the team. He's in there every day and every night. It's good to see a player that constantly works have it pay off. I'm not surprised that he's making these shots because he puts the time in in the gym."

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