CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Beleaguered Vols receive big lift from unexpected source

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The first unofficial visit was to Chattanooga, Tenn., a Southern Conference school, and that made sense for Skylar McBee because he was, by most accounts, a Southern-Conference type of prospect. He could shoot it, sure. But he was kind of small, and not all that athletic. So the first visit was to Chattanooga, and the first question came from Chattanooga coach John Shulman.

"He said, 'Skylar, if you could pick any school, where would you go?' " Skylar's mother, Sue McBee, recalled Sunday night, her smile still wide from an afternoon of basketball she never could've imagined where No. 16 Tennessee upset top-ranked Kansas 76-68 in Knoxville. "And I still remember Skylar looking at him and saying, 'Coach, if I could go anywhere I'd go to the University of Tennessee.' "

One problem: Tennessee didn't have a scholarship for McBee.

"He came to our elite camp the summer before his senior year, and I didn't even know who he was," acknowledged UT assistant Steve Forbes, and you should understand that Forbes is a recruiter who makes a living knowing about prospects. But he didn't know McBee. Even when he got to know McBee, he still didn't see a way a program like Tennessee could offer a prospect like McBee.

So UT didn't offer. But Chattanooga did. And Marshall did. And Santa Clara did. And a bunch of other non-BCS programs did, too. But McBee never wavered from the answer to the question from the Chattanooga coach on that first unofficial visit. One day he went back to his mother, all these scholarships on the table, and asked if she would be willing to pay his way through college.

"He said, 'Mom, if you'll support me, this is the route I want to go,' " Sue McBee said. "His heart was at Tennessee."

Now he's in every Tennessee fan's heart.

"I have no words to describe it," Skylar McBee said. "How many people get the chance to say they played against the No. 1 team in the country?"

Better question: How many freshmen walk-ons get the chance to say they buried a 3-pointer from the left wing as the shot clock expired in the final minute to lead his team past the No. 1 team in the country on CBS just a week after four key players were arrested? I'm not 100 percent certain of the answer, but I'm going to assume the answer is one.

That one is Skylar McBee, who hit the key shot in the Vols' upset of the No. 1 Jayhawks on Sunday before a rowdy crowd of 21,936 here at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Kansas-Tennessee links

Recap: No. 16 Tennessee 76, No. 1 Kansas 68

Parrish: Top 25 (and one)

More

SB Nation: Pearl's walk-ons

Blog: The People's Poll

Bleacher Report: Weekend rewind

It was stunning.

Just like the past 10 days.

As you probably know, the Vols had four players arrested Jan. 1 on gun and drug charges and Bruce Pearl immediately suspended all four (subsequently dismissing Tyler Smith). This left the Vols with the daunting task of hosting the nation's top-ranked team without a total of six players -- Josh Tabb (left team in preseason), Emmanuel Negedu (sidelined with heart condition), Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins (all suspended after arrest) and Smith (dismissed after arrest) -- who at one time figured to be in this season's rotation.

But you wouldn't have known it by looking at Pearl.

He spent pregame -- in dress pants and a white shirt with orange suspenders, no coat -- walking the court, chatting with fans, the Kansas assistants, his own players, calm as could be.

Then the game started and he was no longer calm. But he was absolutely in control, motivating an out-manned roster to a 33-33 tie at halftime, at which point most were still predicting UT to fold. Then Wayne Chism picked up his fourth foul with 13:43 remaining, and J.P. Prince was whistled for his fourth foul eight seconds later. Suddenly, the Vols were playing stretches with three walk-ons -- Josh Bone, Steven Pearl and McBee -- on the court together, and that's when it seemed Kansas would rally and pull away.

But a funny thing happened instead.

The Vols kept scrapping.

They pounced on loose balls, made open shots, blocked out as well as a physically overmatched team can block out and looked a lot like the squads from Pearl's first two years at Tennessee. You know, those teams that didn't seem like much on paper but consistently won, which leads to the obvious question: Is Bruce Pearl better in this role?

Tennessee's Skylar McBee and Bobby Maze bask in the glory of defeating the nation's No. 1 team. (US Presswire)  
Tennessee's Skylar McBee and Bobby Maze bask in the glory of defeating the nation's No. 1 team. (US Presswire)  
"I do think he relishes the underdog role," said UT athletic director Mike Hamilton, and boy was Pearl in it. With the help of a frenzied press, Kansas cut a 71-64 deficit to 71-68 with 1:14 remaining, and Tennessee was about to join the "Teams that blew seemingly insurmountable leads to Kansas on CBS" club, cross-state rival Memphis being the most famous member. But then McBee got the ball on the left wing, the shot clock was running down, and he seemed on the verge of taking a shot clock violation when he let fly a jumper that this 19-year-old who grew up 30 miles from the UT campus will still be hearing about when he's 49. And 59. And 69 ...

"I didn't know how much time was on the shot clock when I got the ball, but then I glanced up and saw I only had three seconds," McBee said afterward as he signed ticket stubs from fans. "When I saw that, I said, 'Well, I'm going to have to get this off.' So I kind of pump-faked and got under him, and it ended up going in."

Over in the stands, Sue McBee went bananas.

Bananas over this improbable turn of events.

"This was never supposed to happen," she said. "Skylar is supposed to be playing at a mid-major."

Instead, he's playing at Tennessee.

Because he passed on scholarships to pay his own way.

"When we're old, we're going to be broke," Sue McBee said with a laugh. "I just wrote a check last week for $4,500."

You know what Tennessee fans call that?

Money well spent.


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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