By Jimmy Hyams
Vincent Yarbrough was one of the top five high-school prospects in the nation in 1998 – a blue-chip talent from Cleveland, Tenn.
The 6-foot-7 forward had his choice of colleges.
He picked Tennessee – only the sixth McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Vols at the time since McDonald’s started such an honor in 1977.
And at that time, only one McDonald’s All-American became a star for the Vols – Allan Houston.
Yarbrough didn’t reach the heights of Houston, but he made first-team All-SEC as a senior, second-team as a sophomore and junior, and ranks among UT’s top 10 in scoring, steals, blocks and offensive rebounding.
Did Yarbrough feel intense pressure to live up to his high-school billing?
“No, there wasn’t any extra pressure being a McDonald’s All-American,’’ Yarbrough said in a recent interview on SportsTalk WNML, “because I didn’t come into a situation thinking I was one-and-done.
“I came into a situation knowing I had a lot to learn. I knew I was a good, athletic player.’’
But he played center in high school. He would be a wing in college – and, in the pros, if he was good enough.
Veterans like Brandon Wharton, Tony Harris and Aaron Green taught him what to look forward to and how physical play was in the SEC.
“For myself, it was more of a learning experience,’’ Yarbrough said. “Coming in thinking you’re a one-and-done, it’s unwanted or unneeded pressure on you.’’
Yarbrough averaged only 7.6 points as a freshman.
“As a competitive basketball player, you always feel you could do better,’’ Yarbrough said. “I came into a senior-led team. They’d been there and made a commitment to the program and got it to a level where it was nationally recognized.’’
Yarbrough’s scoring averages the next three years: 14.8 then 13.9 then 18.1. He scored 1,737 career points, collected 862 rebounds, recorded 211 steals and blocked 131 shots.
“I thought I was the glue guy for the team,’’ Yarbrough said. “So if there was something that needed to be done, that’s what I tried to do. I wasn’t that guy trying to score 30 points every night.
“The one thing I did try to consistently do is what the coaches asked me to do.’’
Tennessee was 20-9 the year before Yarbrough arrived, 21-9 his freshman season. The Vols went 26-7 the next season and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, where they were ousted by North Carolina.
UT went 22-11 Yarbrough’s junior season, but the team started 16-1 and was ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation when they bottomed dropped out. The Vols lost eight of their next 10 then fell to Charlotte in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Jerry Green was fired. Buzz Peterson was hired.
Yarbrough said it took a while to get used to playing for Green, who wasn’t as demanding as his high school coach, Ray Grant.
“He (Green) expected you to do what you were there to do,’’ Yarbrough said. “That was new to me.’’
Yarbrough said he eventually “loved playing for coach Green. Some of the outcomes in the tournaments, probably not. … But there were some reasons why. You can not just say, `Green wasn’t the greatest coach.’’’
Yarbrough said he returned for his senior season at Tennessee because he thought the team could accomplish special things.
“I felt we had a great enough team to win a national championship,’’ Yarbrough said. “And it just so happened (Green) got fired before that they brought in coach Buzz Peterson. And it was another adjustment to a coach.’’
The adjustment didn’t go well. Tennessee went 15-16 in Peterson’s first season and didn’t even qualify for the NIT.
After playing several years overseas, Yarbrough started a shooting camp. He said he had three great instructional coaches, and he wants to pass that on to young players.
“It’s really exciting for me,’’ he said. “I probably get more out of it than them because it gives them a chance to live out their dreams.’’
Tennessee has now signed 12 McDonald’s All-Americans. Five would be considered good to great: Houston, Yarbrough, Tony Harris, Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson.
Four would be considered busts: James Ratiff (1977 – he transferred after one year to Howard University), Doug Roth (1985), Charles Hathaway (1996) and Jackie Butler (2003 – Butler never enrolled at UT, then turned pro).
The jury remains out on Josiah-Jordan James, who had an up-and-down freshman season.
The other two are incoming freshmen: Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson.