It's a season in Vanderbilt history which some in the program might point to as a template for how the 2015-2016 could go if things break just right.
The 1987-1988 season gave the Commodores one of their six trips to the Sweet 16, but what it more specifically did is that it showed that with a strong anchor in the low post and solid complementary players, a team could get a decent mid-level NCAA tournament seed and make some noise.
The 1993 and 2007 Vanderbilt teams that made the Sweet 16 were not anchored by their low-post players, but by perimeter and wing players. Athletic skill merchants who could put the ball in the basket from many spots on the floor gave Vanderbilt an offensive potency which led the Dores to greater heights. This is how many great teams function – they get a lot from a wing player who spreads the court and creates spacing which extends a defense 20 feet from the basket, opening up driving lanes and making the painted area much less cluttered.
However, there are many ways to win games, on both offense and defense. At the offensive end, having a prime player in the pivot generates defensive double-teams much closer to the basket, resulting in kick-outs and open jumpers after the defense sags. Damian Jones hopes to be this kind of player in the season to come, and when he wonders what a stronger, better second season would look like in Nashville, he can look to Vanderbilt’s past for just such an example.
Jones, in season one, registered 14.4 points and 6.5 rebounds in 29 minutes. Foul trouble did at times limit Jones’s minutes, but not being overworked in a sophomore campaign required some intentionality from coach Kevin Stallings and the rest of the VU staff. In Jones’s next season, though, there will be an expectation that Jones must stay on the floor longer so that he can showcase more of who and what he is as a player, thereby giving Vanderbilt more of a chance to move up the ranks in the SEC. It’s absolutely true that the perimeter shooting of this upcoming (2016) team should be very good, but Jones needs to establish himself on the low blocks and make himself into a nightmare for opposing centers. If he can do this, defenses will have to provide help against him, and this is what will open up the offense for Vanderbilt’s array of shooters.
All of this hasn’t even made one reference to the defensive end of the floor. Jones will try to become an even more disruptive force than he was this past season. Putting everything together at both ends of the court will but VU’s most promising player in position to deliver a huge year. If this happens, and the injury bug is avoided at the other spots on the floor, Vanderbilt can do something akin to what it did in 1988. It would be an absolute best-case scenario, sure, but it would exist well within the realm of possibility.
The role model for Jones? Will Perdue.
In the 1987-1988 season under C.M. Newton – just a few years before the esteemed coach would give way to Eddie Fogler and begin a new chapter in a life dedicated to collegiate athletics – Vanderbilt ran its offense through Perdue. Yes, this happened.
It might seem surprising to contemplate the idea that Perdue was a team’s main offensive option, given that Perdue was little more than a valet on Chicago Bull and San Antonio Spur teams which won the NBA championship. Perdue mainly watched Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and later David Robinson and Tim Duncan win NBA titles. He was mostly just along for the ride, having a great seat and getting a decent-size paycheck.
For Vanderbilt in that 1987-1988 season, Perdue was the Dores’ meal ticket.
Damian Jones and VU fans would be very happy if Jones could replicate Perdue’s 1988 stat line: 18.2 points per game, 10.4 rebounds per game, 2.6 blocks per game, all in 32.1 minutes per contest. More minutes, more points, a lot more rebounds, and a steady shot-blocking, shot-altering presence near the tin would very probably translate into a series of performances that would create more panic for opponents on both offense and defense. If Jones is an 18-and-10 player, he would indeed demand more attention, and therein lies the 2016 VU team’s path to the NCAA tournament, which is a very realistic aspiration when practice revs up in October.
What Vanderbilt won’t want in 2016 is a situation in which its big man is the leading scorer on the team by nearly six full points. On the 1988 team, Barry Goheen averaged 12.5 points per game, and only one other player averaged at least 10 points per game (Barry Booker with 10 points on the dot).
The 1988 season stood on manifestly shaky ground on the morning of Wednesday, January 13. The Commodores had just lost their third straight SEC game by dropping a decision against Tennessee. That loss followed setbacks against Kentucky and (in a real clunker) LSU. The LSU loss was a 51-39 decision, the kind of dispiriting game collegiate athletes might not ever recover from. On January 13, the Dores – who beat Elite Eight-bound North Carolina early in the season – had to remind themselves that if they could beat an Elite Eight team coached by Dean Smith, they could beat SEC teams on a regular basis.
On January 13, that point of awareness seemed to kick in.
Beginning with that game at Ole Miss, which VU dug out by a narrow 60-57 margin, the Commodores took their next seven games and nine out of ten. In six of those first seven (consecutive) wins and in eight of those nine wins overall, Vanderbilt scored 76 points. Whatever was broken against LSU got fixed, and Perdue led the way.
The team’s NCAA resume had been solidified by that 9-of-10 stretch, and even though the team lost to LSU (again) in the SEC tournament, that loss did not harshly punish VU. For one thing, Vanderbilt got a 7 seed, which is better than an 8 or a 9. VU avoided the 1 line, where Arizona, Oklahoma, Temple, and Purdue (spelled differently from Will Perdue) all lurked. Second, the early loss in a conference tournament rested a team that had put in a lot of hard work over the previous six weeks. That early loss gave VU its legs back, and when NCAA tournament time arrived, Vanderbilt was ready.
VU, as a 7 seed, had been toughened by an SEC that put five teams in the NCAAs and advanced four of them – Florida, Auburn, Kentucky, and VU – to the second round. When games got close in the Big Dance in 1988, Vanderbilt did not buckle. The Dores executed down the stretch in an 80-77 first-round win over Utah State, and while second-seeded Pittsburgh – VU’s next foe – could have thought that the Dores’ close shave pointed to a comparatively easier game for the Panthers in the round of 32, the boys from the Steel City were sorely mistaken.
The 1988 Pitt Panthers had three particularly good players. Longtime NBA veteran Charles Smith anchored that team, and with an 18.4-points-per-game scoring average, his duel with Perdue took top billing in that round-of-32 clash with VU. Jerome Lane – the man referred to by Bill Raftery in the famous backboard-destroying “SEND IT IN, JEROME!” moment that was replayed forever on SportsCenter back then – also gave Pittsburgh a primary scoring option. One other player on that Pitt team is a great coach today: Sean Miller, the boss of the Arizona Wildcats. He was the point guard for head coach Paul Evans.
Pittsburgh played in a loaded Big East. Georgetown and Syracuse were ascendant back then, and Villanova – still coached by Rollie Massimino – was still a pest. Villanova, in fact, nearly made another remarkable run to the Final Four that year. Seeded sixth, the Wildcats beat the other Wildcats from the SEC, shocking second-seeded Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Pittsburgh played in a league that was even tougher than the SEC in 1988.
However, Vanderbilt was better than Pittsburgh on Sunday, March 20, 1988, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The joy the Commodores took from their 80-74 overtime win over Pittsburgh was magnified by the fact that after a season of carrying his teammates, Perdue was able to be helped by those same basketball brothers in a moment of great urgency. Perdue scored 15 points but grabbed only 5 rebounds, while Lane owned the glass for Pittsburgh. “SEND IT IN, JEROME!” didn’t send it in a lot on that day. He scored only 8 points. However, he gobbled up 20 rebounds and gave Pitt enough second-chance possessions that Smith was able to score 21 points. Pittsburgh obliterated Vanderbilt on the boards, 42-24. To offset that damaging development, Vanderbilt needed to shoot better and get free points at the foul line.
Enter Barry Goheen.
Despite averaging nearly six fewer points than Perdue, Goheen rose up and played above his head against Pitt. He nearly doubled his season-long scoring average, scoring 22 points. He was able to get to the foul line nine times in the game, more than Smith for Pittsburgh (8) or anyone else on the floor. With Barry Booker going 6-of-9 from the field and Eric Reid hitting 5-of-11 shots, Vanderbilt hit 47.5 percent of its field goal attempts and scored 11 points in the five-minute overtime stanza. Pittsburgh’s offense, in contrast, petered out in overtime, scoring only five.
Vanderbilt’s season ended five nights later in the Sweet 16 against Danny Manning, Larry Brown, and eventual national champion Kansas, but the run to the second weekend of the NCAAs remains a golden point in VU hoops history.
If Damian Jones can put up Will Perdue-type numbers – and his teammates can pick him up the way the 1988 Dores had Perdue’s back against Pitt – this next season of Vanderbilt hoops will be richly remembered when it’s all said and done.