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It's a Guy Thing
For the last two decades, life as a Tennessee men's basketball player has been roughly equivalent to being Madonna's brother. It's hard to get noticed playing at a school whose six-time national champion Lady Vols are the most celebrated women's team in history. Sibling rivalries intensified further on Jan. 4, 1999, when the Tennessee football team won the national title. However, after last week's 105-76 victory over then No. 7-ranked Auburn and a 73-66 win over South Carolina, the No. 6-rated Volunteers were 18-2 overall and 6-1 in the SEC going into Tuesday's scheduled matchup with Kentucky. That represented Tennessee's best start since the 1941-42 season. Perhaps more important—at least for their egos—the Volunteers had a better record than the Lady Vols through January for the first time in 15 years.
Sophomore forward Vincent Yarbrough has led the revival. He spurned Kentucky to play with his brother, Del Baker, at Tennessee, thus becoming one of the most heralded recruits in the program's history. The youngest player in Division I last season, at age 17, the 6'7" Yarbrough averaged just 7.6 points as an afterthought in the Vols' offense.
Over the summer he drilled four hours a day on ball handling and reducing the arc in his jump shot by a foot. After having struggled with his revamped jumper through a midseason 2-for-25 drought from three-point range, Yarbrough has recovered to lead Tennessee in scoring (with a 15.8-point average through Sunday) and steals (41). He was also the Vols' second-leading rebounder (6.7 a game) and had a double double in the win over Auburn on Jan. 25 and another in Tennessee's 81-79 double-overtime upset of Florida on Jan. 18. Last Saturday he matched his career-high with 25 points against the Gamecocks. "Last year he sensed what people expected of him, and it became a burden," Baker says. "Now he's more relaxed, and he's making a breakthrough. But we ain't seen nothing yet."
Tennessee has a cadre of other talented players, including potent inside forces Isiah Victor and C.J. Black and perimeter threat Tony Harris, "who is one of the top three-point shooters in the SEC (43.9%). Ultimately, however, Tennessee's success may hinge on whether it can play unselfishly. The pivotal moment so far this season occurred on Dec. 23, when the Volunteers were blown out by Tulsa 88-68. Coach Jerry Green pointed out that Tennessee had averaged less than one pass per possession in the game. He preached the value of teamwork to his players, and when Yarbrough began the next game with two forced jumpers, Green benched him to send a message. "We've learned to share the ball, and that's making us tougher to guard," Green says. "What began this season as a group of individuals has become a team."
While these Vols seem certain to break the school record of 22 wins in a season, history also reveals that Tennessee has never won more than one game in the NCAA tournament. "We know we have a chance to be the school's best team ever," Yarbrough says. "We like surprising people, giving opposing fans the ghost face that says, What just happened?"
Memories of an overconfident Vols team losing 81-51 to Southwest Missouri State in the second round of the national tournament last March still haunt Green, who has refused to watch the videotape of that game. He did have flashbacks, though, when he saw the boisterous celebration after Tennessee's win over Auburn. He admonished his Vols by quoting one of his favorite maxims: A tiger never growls after the kill.
Somber Seton Hall
The phone rang in Shaheen Holloway's dorm room at 5:30 on the morning of Jan. 19. A fellow student was on the line saying something about a fire, but the groggy Holloway, Seton Hall's point guard, thought it was a prank. A half hour later Shaheen's mother, Claudette, called in a teary panic, wanting to know if he was safe. Shaheen's phone rang all morning as word spread about the tragic blaze in a freshman dormitory that claimed the lives of three Seton Hall students and sent 62 others to the hospital. Hours before the fire broke out Holloway and his teammates had been celebrating a 78-70 defeat of then No. 19 St. John's. The fire gave them a jolt of reality, and they have since struggled to cope, along with everyone else in the school's community. "It's been real tough concentrating on basketball when you know people lost their lives," says Holloway, a 5'10" senior. "There's just a really sad feeling around campus."