KNOXVILLE — In November 1997, Vincent Yarbrough sat in a commons area at Tennessee’s Cleveland High School, considering his basketball future.
Once committed to Kentucky, the 6-foot-7 forward was holding a news conference to announce his ultimate decision about which college program he would sign with and play for after completing a stellar prep career with the Blue Raiders.
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Famed scout Bob Gibbons had at one point ranked Yarbrough the No. 1 recruit in the country for the class of 1998. As he prepared to make his announcement, Yarbrough was the No. 18 overall recruit and the No. 7 small forward in a class that included Richard Jefferson, Corey Maggette, Mike Miller and Quentin Richardson.
Tennessee had been after him hard for months. Kentucky was still lingering around. Atlantic Coast Conference and national powers Duke and North Carolina, after showing interest earlier, had waned down the stretch.
Yarbrough was confident in his decision as he decided to join a Southeastern Conference team.
“There’s a sleeping giant in the SEC,” he told the contingent on Nov. 16, 1997, before donning a Tennessee hat.
Staff file photo / Vincent Yarbrough, who was a high school All-American at Cleveland before going on to play at the University of Tennessee and professionally, encourages participants in a basketball camp at his alma mater in June 2012.
At the time, it was simply the latest recruiting coup for the Volunteers.
Two seasons before, it was C.J. Black, Charles Hathaway and Isiah Victor. The class of 1997 featured guard Tony Harris. A year after Yarbrough, the program added Jon Higgins, Ron Slay and Terrance Woods, giving the Vols eight top-100 prospects on their roster for the 1999-2000 season, which they capped with a Sweet 16 appearance.
It was the peak of a four-year run of NCAA tournament berths and the start of what has become a 20-year run of success for the Tennessee program, highlighted by Wednesday’s signings of five-star guard Keon Johnson and four-star swingman Corey Walker. The Vols also have a commitment from five-star guard Jaden Springer, whose signing has not yet been announced by Tennessee.
Prior to 1998, Tennessee had a total of nine NCAA tournament appearances and had only played its way into the Sweet 16 once (1981.) Since then there have been 13 NCAA tourney trips, with nine appearances in the round of 32, six in the Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight appearance in 2010. Tennessee has twice been ranked No. 1 in the country, most recently having spent a month on top last season.
Yarbrough, though, considers himself part of the group that helped spur the turnaround, regardless of what some think about that era of Vols basketball.
“Our team is not always looked on as the team that changed anything,” Yarbrough told the Times Free Press recently. “We’re looked on as underachievers because of the talent we had, but in my eyes it’s allowed the great coaches and the great players to follow through and say, ‘Hey, Tennessee is a viable option to make something happen.’ From when we left, to the time Coach (Bruce) Pearl got there and took it to a certain level and got kids to buy in to the program, now Coach (Rick) Barnes has also stepped it up from where Pearl was at and is now developing the right types of kids in the program, recruiting the right types of kids for the Knoxville community.
“He will have success as long as he chooses to stay at it.”
Identifying the fit
So who is the “right type of kid” for the Vols with Barnes as coach?
Now in his fifth season in Knoxville, his recruiting methods haven’t always been a hit with the Tennessee fan base. Recruiting star ratings haven’t mattered to him, because they rarely told how good the player was and spoke more to his athletic upside. Barnes chose to find diamonds in the rough who would, first of all, be good people for the community and, second, hard-working players who wanted to improve and develop.
See Grant Williams. See Kyle Alexander. See Admiral Schofield. See Jordan Bone. All players who chose the Vols in part due to Barnes. All players who developed and had NBA opportunities this past offseason.
“The biggest thing is the fit,” Tennessee assistant Michael Schwartz, who joined the staff prior to the 2016-17 season, told the Times Free Press recently. “What does fit mean for us? Fit means that program-wise, culture-wise, playing for Coach Barnes-wise, it’s going to be a good fit. That really hasn’t changed how we’ve recruited the whole time.
“I think the exciting thing is now maybe some of the more well-known players — or some of the players that are ranked, so to speak — have a little more knowledge of us going in, so from the first phone call or maybe going to see them at school, they are aware because they’ve watched us play. They’ve seen us — Grant or Admiral or whoever it may be — from the standpoint of who we want to bring in. What is good? What is a five-star for Tennessee? What’s a five-star for Coach Barnes? Nothing has really changed.”
The results weren’t immediate, though. Tennessee went 31-35 in Barnes’ first two seasons as he tried to find the right mix of talent and ability. The latest turnaround happened the following season as the Vols went 26-9 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tourney. A year later it was a 31-6 mark that included a month spent at No. 1 and another Sweet 16 appearance.
The end result has been success on the recruiting trail.
For the class of 2019 it was five-star guard Josiah-Jordan James and four-star forward Olivier Nkamhoua signing with the Vols — both are in the rotation as freshmen for a team that has won back-to-back games to start the season. Now it’s the trio of Johnson, Springer and Walker, who have given Tennessee the No. 4 recruiting class in the country, which is slightly better than the 2006 six-player class that was led by four-star forward Duke Crews and ranked sixth.
Schwartz said the focus hasn’t changed.
“If we went back right now and had to recruit Grant Williams today and he still was somebody that was underrecruited, we’d still take him today,” Schwartz said. “Just because there’s been a little bit of a different success recruiting, different success as a team, we’re not going to change the blueprint. The exciting thing is now maybe there’s more talented players that are aware of us as we’re coming in and trying to make a decision on who do we really need to try and build a relationship with.”
Honoring the past
Tennessee’s recent recruiting success has not been lost on current or past players. Long before Yarbrough, there were Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. Then there was Tony White. Then it was Allan Houston. After Yarbrough’s group it was Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, followed by Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, Jordan McRae and the most recent crop led by Schofield and Williams.
The Vols’ 57 wins the past two seasons helped recruit the current group of players.
“You take pride in that,” senior Lamonte Turner said after Tuesday night’s home win over Murray State. “Being a guy that’s been here with Coach Barnes since day one, you put a lot of work in this program to get where it is now and to keep it there and keep going forward and keep going up, you take a lot of pride in that.
AP photo by Andy Manis / Tennessee’s Vincent Yarbrough, bottom, and Wisconsin’s Kirk Penney battle for possession during a game hosted by Wisconsin on Dec. 29, 2001.
“Those guys last year handed the keys to me and Jordan (Bowden), and we’re going to take it further and leave it better than we found it. With these young guys that’s watching, I take a lot of pride in it and I hope when I hand the keys over they continue it.”
Yarbrough said his group came together through the Tennessee Travelers’ AAU circuit as a bunch of talented young basketball players in the state of Tennessee who wanted to do something great.
“I was just a kid that saw an opportunity that I thought was going to be different, was going to be great,” said Yarbrough, who is still the Vols’ all-time leader in steals (211) and is among the top in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks.
“We looked at it as: Why go somewhere and sign when we could all go here and play together? Tennessee Travelers had a lot to do with it; Charlie Benson (now Carson-Newman’s head coach, he founded the Travelers) had a lot to do with it, because we got comfortable with the university by holding practice in Knoxville and from there was sold the idea of what we could do, what was a possibility.
“When we look back at the program, the program is in good hands. I think it’s the program we all envisioned that Tennessee could be someday.”