Vandy Basketball: 1965, Near The Summit

It’s been half a century since the greatest men’s basketball team at Vanderbilt University took the court. The Super Bowl had not been invented then. The Cleveland Browns were defending NFL champions at the time… and have never had the chance to defend an NFL title since then. How did that wondrous 1965 season unfold? It intersected with other great figures from college basketball history.

One of the most outstanding and significant games in college basketball history was North Carolina State’s nail-biting victory over Maryland in the 1974 ACC Tournament final. The result was notable less for the fact that it vaulted N.C. State into the NCAA tournament than for the fact that it knocked Maryland out of the Big Dance. The NCAA tourney was limited to fewer than 30 teams at the time. In addition to independent schools such as Marquette and Notre Dame, which did not have to win a conference tournament, the only other schools that could qualify for the Dance were those that won their conference tourneys.

The fact that Maryland – a great team that season, and one of the best in the sport’s long history – did not (could not) participate in the NCAAs fueled a reform movement that expanded the NCAA tournament to 32, and then 40, and then 48, then 53, then 64 teams in 1985. The 1974 ACC final was the catalyst for the expansion of the NCAA tournament, a move enabled by the admittance of at-large teams into the field.

Why mention this? Here’s the simple answer: Had the NCAA field been open to at-large teams and non-champions in conferences during the latter half of the 1960s and the early half of the 1970s, Vanderbilt would have made several more NCAA appearances – four, to be precise. Coach Roy Skinner’s successful career would have had a chance to become far more memorable than it was (and is).

VU went 22-4 in 1966. Unfortunately, Kentucky’s last great team under Adolph Rupp won the SEC and made its way to the national title game. One player on that UK roster: Pat Riley.

In 1967, Vanderbilt posted a 21-5 record. No dice for the Dance. A 20-6 season in 1968 didn’t culminate in a tourney trip, either. Another 20-6 campaign in 1973 also failed to lead to Bracketville. Skinner had to wait nine years, from 1965 to 1974, to return to the NCAA tournament. On a larger level, Vanderbilt made just two NCAA appearances – both brought about by Skinner – before C.M. Newton ushered in the era of the expanded 64-team field and began to make Vanderbilt a more regular tourney team. The severe constraints placed on NCAA tournament teams through 1974 worked against many programs, and Vanderbilt is one of them.

In 1965, though, VU climbed higher than ever before… and higher than at any subsequent point over the past 50 years.


The only oddball type of loss Vanderbilt suffered in 1965 came against Virginia Tech. Other than that, the Dores simply didn’t give games away. Their other two regular-season losses came against North Carolina, which was beginning to figure things out under a young coach named Dean Smith, and a Tennessee team which finished 12-4, good for second place in the SEC. That’s right – Vanderbilt lost only one SEC game in 1965, posting a 15-1 record and storming to the league title. VU swept Kentucky in the home-and-home series, and quite remarkably, won by a landslide in Rupp Arena, 97-79. Vanderbilt won three SEC games by five points or fewer, but 12 of the Commodores’ SEC victories were double-digit drubbings. Vanderbilt endured a four-game road trip in early January, including the visit to Lexington. The Dores’ average margin of victory on that 4-0 trip? 17.25 points.

From the start of the season to its very end, Vanderbilt proved itself through and through as a team worthy of the Final Four.

The unfortunate and cruel part of college basketball seasons? A lot of teams worthy of the Final Four don’t get there.

In 1965, the NCAA field consisted of 23 teams. A few teams had to play their way into the Sweet 16, but most gained immediate entry into the regional semifinals. In the Sweet 16, Vanderbilt took on Ray Meyer and the DePaul Blue Demons. Meyer was one of the giants of the sport in suburban Chicago for four decades. He reached the Final Four in 1943 and 1979, but in no other years. That 36-year gap between Final Fours is the largest for any coach in history. DePaul didn’t crack the Final Four in 1965 because Vanderbilt stood in Meyer’s way.

On a narrow and more immediate level, Vanderbilt fended off DePaul in the 1965 NCAAs because VU allowed only two points to the Blue Demons in overtime. On a larger level, the Dores won because of a plus-nine differential in free throw makes (23 to 14). However, in terms of the overall flow of the game – one in which both benches scored a total of only two points – the defining point of differentiation between the two teams was the effectiveness of their secondary scorers. Errol Palmer scored 28 for DePaul, while Clyde Lee poured in 24 for Vanderbilt. The second scorers revealed why Vanderbilt won: VU’s Keith Thomas was a sharp 7-of-10 from the field for 18 points. In marked contrast, Jim Murphy of DePaul needed 25 shots (he made only nine) to score 21 points, including three from the foul line. Vanderbilt hit 47 percent of its shots, en route to the first Elite Eight in the program’s history…

… also the only Elite Eight the men’s team has ever reached.

Why did VU not make the Final Four? Michigan, the eventual national runner-up in 1965 (to John Wooden’s second national championship team at UCLA), simply played a better game.

The star for the 1965 Michigan team was Cazzie Russell, who played in an NBA All-Star Game and won a world title with the 1970 New York Knicks. Everyone expected Russell to take center stage in the Mideast Regional final against Vanderbilt (played in Rupp Arena), but Bill Buntin stole the show. Lee was there for Vanderbilt with 28 points, and Thomas chipped in with 21. However, while Russell scored 26 for Michigan on 9-of-19 shooting, Buntin hit 11 field goals for 26 more points. The supporting cast for Michigan also excelled, with Larry Tregoning and George Pomey combining to hit 8 of their 13 field goal attempts. Vanderbilt hit 48 percent of its shots, but Michigan hit 49 percent. Sometimes, your best is exceeded by the opponent. Such was the case for VU in a game that was close all the way. Michigan outlasted Vanderbilt, 87-85, and the Dores haven’t returned to a regional final in the subsequent half century.

No regrets. No what-ifs. Nothing left on the court. Vanderbilt’s very best was excellent in 1965. One opponent just happened to rise a little higher. If the 1965 season teaches us anything, it’s that the absurdly small size of the NCAA tournament at that point in history prevented a lot of great teams from making more March memories… Roy Skinner’s Commodores very much included.

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