NASHVILLE — The play that diminished Tennessee guard Skylar McBee’s senior season happened in typical McBee fashion. He was hustling, trying to fight through a screen against Georgetown last November.
“The guy I was guarding was coming off a screen and he curled it,” McBee said. “I tried to slide my body through. But just my arm got through. When he curled, it kind of snapped a ligament in my elbow.”
The ligament was the UCL in his shooting arm. Most people don’t know what that means, but they understand this—the surgery McBee will need to correct it was named after the first high-level athlete whose career was saved by it, Tommy John. But this being McBee’s last season, there was no way he was going under the knife.
So McBee soldiered on, despite pain, and worse, the loss of the touch that made him a 40-percent 3-point shooter last season. Good shooters have such dexterity that they know whether a shot they’ve released is going to fly long or end up short. For several weeks after his injury, McBee had no clue where his shots would end up. Not surprisingly, most of them missed.
“At first (the injury) affected me,” McBee said. “It was uncomfortable, and there was kind of a hitch (in his shooting stroke). It was something I had to get used to.”
McBee’s solution was to stay in the gym and get up shot after shot, hoping he could adapt. To his credit, he said nothing about his struggle.
“He had to make the adjustment,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “If he didn’t say it it or you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t know. He’s not one of those kind of guys. He’s gonna pay the game, compete at a high level and whatever happens, happens.”
In the season’s final month, as the Vols rallied from a 3-6 start in Southeastern Conference play to finish 11-7 and give themselves a chance to claim an NCAA Tournament berth, McBee began finding the range. He was 3 of 3 from 3-point range in a 30-point rout of Kentucky, 3 of 4 in a four-overtime win at Texas A&M and 2 of 4 in a win over Florida. “We were still going to him like he was 100 percent,” Tennessee assistant coach Kent Williams said.
That turned out to be true in Tennessee’s first-round SEC Tournament win over Mississippi State on Thursday, even though, after the Florida game, McBee’s touch disappeared again. In the final three games of the regular season, against Georgia, Auburn and Missouri, McBee was 4 of 21 behind the arc.
When game-planning for the Bulldogs, the Tennessee coaching staff didn’t stop to worry whether McBee had gone cold again. That’s because they knew McBee would be needed. State plays a 1-3-1 zone, which meant there would be plenty of corner jumpers to be had.
“When people run a 1-3-1, the corners are really open,” McBee said. “You know you’re going to get good looks because of the pressure they’re trying to put out at the top. We knew coming in that guys were gonna have to hit some shots in the corners.”
Just like the McBee of old, he was one of those guys. He made the first shot he took, a 3-pointer with 16:34 to play in the first half.
“That was great,” Williams said. “For a shooter, it you hit one early, it gets your confidence going.”
McBee made two more 3s, finishing 3 of 8 from behind the arc. That’s a solid 37 percent, a success ratio McBee, Martin and everybody else in the program will gladly take the rest of the season.
“Skylar is a guy a blue-collar guy, a Tennessee guy,” Martin said. “He wants Tennessee to win basketball games more than he wants to be successful. That says a lot about him. He’s gonna compete, he’s gonna battle. This was not a case of an injury keeping him out of the game. It’s going to take more than that to keep him out.”