For any program still pursuing a Final Four, the reality of any season which ends before that grand event carries with it the sting of sadness. It cannot be denied that when Temple – a team playing in the Sweet 16 only because Santa Clara pulled off a 15-over-2 upset of Arizona in the 1993 NCAA Tournament – defeated Vanderbilt in Seattle’s Kingdome, the Commodores felt the pain of loss in a very acute way. A No. 3 seed should expect to beat a No. 7 seed, so when the Dores couldn’t play their best against the Owls, that Friday night turned into a very disappointing occasion for every coach and player.
However, the knowledge of defeat – 22 years later – does not feel as large as it did in the present moment. The 1993 season feels like a gift, a special journey when a Vanderbilt team took care of business in the SEC. If the 2016 team or any future VU team can mow down the SEC the way the 1993 squad managed to do, Vanderbilt fans are going to throw a big party, regardless of whether the Final Four comes into view or not.
Consider the struggles of VU hoops over the past few years. Recall how historically rare the 2012 SEC Tournament championship was and is. Absorb the fact that VU men’s basketball teams have rarely been able to get on top and stay on top of the rest of the SEC. All these points of awareness greatly magnify the achievements and the consistency of the 1993 Commodores.
His coaching career could have been so much better and longer than it turned out to be, but Eddie Fogler – a Dean Smith disciple who had fixed up the Wichita State program in the past and would restore South Carolina’s program in the future – gave Vanderbilt his best shot in 1993. This was a year when Fogler enjoyed a couple of unique combinations in his starting five, combinations he parlayed into one of the best seasons in VU hoops history.
Great teams generally do have a great primary scoring option, and for VU in 1993, that man was Billy McCaffrey. Having played for Mike Krzyzewski’s first national championship team at Duke in 1991, McCaffrey transferred to Vanderbilt and sat out the 1992 season, when Duke repeated. McCaffrey gave up quite a lot by sitting out a season in which college basketball produced one of its few repeat national champions. Yet, McCaffrey and Vanderbilt fans can confidently say that 1993 represented a substantial (albeit not complete) payoff for that sacrifice. McCaffrey’s shooting accuracy, floor vision, and overall feel for the game produced a high-level scorer who facilitated the Dores’ halfcourt offense and created opportunities for his teammates. This last point demands more amplification.
The casual fan will look through the stats and notice that McCaffrey averaged just over 20 points per game for Vanderbilt in the 1992-1993 season, more than eight points higher than the next most prolific scorer on the team. However, the detail which mattered more to Fogler and anyone else who was centrally invested in the fortunes of the 1993 team is that each of the other four members of the starting five averaged at least 10 points per contest. VU had that one great scorer in McCaffrey, but the Dores’ balance – made possible by McCaffrey’s playmaking – made them a truly tough opponent for the rest of the SEC.
The VU offense was a marvel for much of this special journey. The Commodores played a few cupcakes – as any college basketball team will – in the non-conference portion of their season. They cruised past North Carolina A&T and Austin Peay. However, this team did not duck the big-name schools in non-conference action: VU played Illinois, Louisville, UAB, and Memphis, all of which were good at the time. Even SMU was good at college basketball back in 1993, and the Dores played the Ponies as well. Given this roster of quality foes, the following statement becomes particularly impressive: Vanderbilt scored at least 76 points in each of its first 13 games and in 29 of the season’s 34 contests. The Dores posted at least 80 points in 22 of their 34 games, and in seven straight SEC games from February 10 through March 2 of 1993. It’s really difficult to stop and contemplate how amazing it is that any power-conference team could produce seven straight games in the 80s or better in the back end of the conference season, when familiar scouting reports and determined opponents easily could have created much tougher nights at the office. Vanderbilt, with McCaffery and four highly competent members of a very effective supporting cast, put a starting five on the floor which meshed at a very advanced level. SEC defenses just couldn’t figure this team out very often. Florida, Kentucky, and LSU (SEC tournament) all stopped VU’s offense once, but the Dores rolled in the second meetings against each of those teams in 1993.
The well-oiled nature of Vanderbilt’s offense held up in the first two games of the 1993 NCAA Tournament. Vanderbilt hung 92 points on Boise State in a 3-versus-14 game in round one. The Dores then slapped 85 on Illinois in round two, avenging a regular season loss against the Illini. Yes, Temple held VU’s offense to just 59 points, a season low, but no single-game result can diminish what this team achieved over the course of 34 games, 28 of which it won.
If there is something resembling a source of comfort VU fans can take from this recollection of the 1993 season – knowing how much the loss to Temple hurt – it is simply this: Big, bad Michigan – in the second season with the Fab Five and all its NBA-level talent – was waiting in the Elite Eight if VU had pushed past the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt, as good as it was in 1993, was not going to be favored to make its first Final Four in Seattle. Michigan did in fact dispose of Temple to leave the Owls and their legendary coach, John Chaney, locked outside the Final Four once again. Chaney is one of a handful of truly great coaches who never ultimately made the Final Four, putting Vanderbilt’s agonies into a larger and more sympathetic context.
The 1993 men’s basketball season ended earlier than anyone hoped it would, but it still made the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. A 14-2 regular season record in the SEC, the product of a steady stream of quality offensive performances, gave Memorial Gym ticketholders one of the best and most entertaining winters the VU campus has ever hosted. The more 1993 recedes into the past, the more radiant the memory of that season becomes.