VU Basketball: 1974's Enduring Meaning
It's a fundamental part of sports and the history of athletic competition: If you’re called a “one-hit wonder,” the underlying message is negative rather than positive. A player, team or coach might have excelled, but the thrust of the statement is that “They got lucky and hit the jackpot that one time. They never could replicate that feat.” Competitors rightly bristle at the notion, whether or not it’s fair. Being able to do something significant a second time does indeed enhance a record, a reputation, a legacy.
This is what Vanderbilt men’s basketball accomplished in the 1973-1974 season.
We talked about the topic last week: Vanderbilt head coach Roy Skinner – had the NCAA tournament allowed non-champions of power conferences into the field at the time – would have made several Big Dances, often with a chance to go deep in them. If the NCAAs had even 32 teams (forget about 48 or 64) instead of the 22 to 25 it carried through the first half of the 1970s, Vanderbilt men’s basketball might have had a Final Four appearance by now. As it is, the school is still waiting for that first breakthrough. However, no coach in school history gave the Commodores a better chance of knocking the door down than Skinner. The 1993 team (Eddie Fogler) and the 1988 squad (C.M. Newton) had their moments. The 2007 team (Kevin Stallings) deserved to make the Elite Eight, but North Carolina was waiting in that regional final in East Rutherford had a traveling call been made on Georgetown’s Jeff Green. It was in the 1960s and 1970s when Vanderbilt enjoyed its best 10-season stretch of men’s basketball. The first season in that period was 1965, examined last week. The last one was 1974, which we’ll look at now.
Nine years isn’t long in geological time, but for human beings, it sure is. Nearly a decade had passed since Vanderbilt last made the NCAAs in 1965. Roy Skinner had produced several teams at VU that had won over 20 games and lost fewer than seven, but since only one team from the SEC could crash the Dance, the Dores were often left out of the mix, almost always at the expense of Kentucky.
From 1965 through 1974, Kentucky failed to win the SEC (and hence, failed to make the NCAA tournament) only three times. In 1967, Tennessee got in the way, but Vanderbilt stopped Kentucky on two separate occasions during that period, and by subduing UK a second time in 1974, Skinner and his team smashed that “one-hit wonder” barrier in convincing fashion.
When Vanderbilt topped Kentucky in 1965, Adolph Rupp still had several years left in his career as the Baron of the Bluegrass. One person who was not at his side on the Kentucky bench in that 1965 season was Joe B. Hall, a player on Kentucky’s 1949 national championship team. It wasn’t until the 1965-’66 season that Hall joined Rupp as an assistant, and for the next seven years, Vanderbilt could not take the final few steps needed to win the SEC and return to Bracketville. In the 1972-’73 season, Hall took over for Rupp, filling the shoes of a man who spent 42 straight years in Lexington. He promptly won the SEC and reinforced the notion that Kentucky was going to remain “Kentucky.”
In the fullness of time, that notion would indeed be affirmed. In 13 seasons as the Wildcats’ head coach, Hall missed the NCAAs only three times, only once before the expansion to more than 30 teams in the Big Dance (32, to be precise) in 1975. That year, Hall led Kentucky to the national championship game, losing to UCLA and John Wooden in the Wizard of Westwood’s last game on a college bench. Hall won a national title at Kentucky and reached three Final Fours. He certainly succeeded in carrying the torch Rupp handed to him.
It is therefore a point of immeasurable pride and satisfaction that the one time Hall failed to make the NCAAs before the expansion of the tournament was Vanderbilt’s doing. The Commodores didn’t have the chance to personally defeat Hall in 1965; nine years later, though, they came through. This ability to return to the SEC winner’s circle and strike back against Kentucky’s dominance of the SEC is an achievement which – much like the 2012 SEC Tournament title – is going to remain substantial with the passage of time. It will not be diminished as the years go by.
That 1974 Vanderbilt team had to be pretty special to accomplish what it did. The cumulative season stats offer at least a small glimpse into this reality…
The 2015 NBA champion Golden State Warriors were celebrated by the statistical experts who follow basketball for a living. Golden State attained a 10-point differential for the NBA regular season, placing it in very select company. In 1974, Vanderbilt achieved an average point differential of just over 7 points (7.3), marking the Dores as a legitimately great team. What VU established in point differential flowed through many other aspects of this group’s dominance of the SEC.
One hallmark of this team was its balance. Four players averaged more than 10 points per game, led by Terry Compton with 14.8. Three more players averaged at least eight points per contest, giving this team the ability to score at all five positions without any one man hijacking or disrupting a halfcourt set. (This sounds a lot like the 2015 Atlanta Hawks – Vanderbilt product John Jenkins could tell you a thing or two about this kind of team dynamic.)
The other particularly eye-popping stats created by this team were found in the realms of fouls and free throw attempts. Vanderbilt players just didn’t foul out in 1974 – four in total, only one player more than once. For the season, 23 opposing players fouled out against Vanderbilt, 19 more than VU’s total. The Dores were incredibly disciplined in defending without fouling. This resulted in one more whopping testament to their superiority on the court: Vanderbilt earned – and made – over 200 more free throws than its opponents in the 1973-’74 campaign: 477-271 in terms of makes, 595-378 in terms of attempts. With that kind of defensive intelligence, a team shooting rate of 47 percent was more than enough to give the Commodores a major edge in almost every game they played.
The results were magnificent: A 23-3 regular season, 15-3 in the SEC, 10-2 on the road, and only one loss at home. Future VU coach Jan Van Breda Kolff averaged 9.7 rebounds a game and never fouled out while outworking opponents in the paint. He supplemented the team’s balanced scoring with a lot of elbow grease in the paint. Vanderbilt also hit 80 percent of its foul shots as a team – if the 2015-2016 team can do that, we’re very likely looking at an NCAA tournament berth next March.
The Commodores first gained the sense that the 1973-’74 season could be special on the night of Dec. 11, 1973. It was on that night that the Dores went into Memphis and beat the Memphis State Tigers, the team that had made the national title game the season before (losing to – of course – UCLA). Taking down a team that had made a major statement in the college basketball world immediately changed the way the nation saw the Dores that season, just four games in. A week and a half later, VU polished off Kansas by 11 points. A team’s belief in itself had been established.
If VU was going to walk over the hot coals of pressure in the SEC, a visit to Lexington represented the obvious moment of truth for Roy Skinner and his players. On Jan. 28, the Dores walked into Bluegrass country and methodically applied an 82-65 beatdown to the Wildcats. For a stretch of over a full month – Jan. 14 through Feb. 18 – Vanderbilt did not lose a game. As that 11-game winning streak continued, opponents got tougher, but VU always had the answer, winning by small margins against Florida (6 points), Alabama (2), Mississippi State (1), LSU (3), and Georgia (5) in succession.
Alabama did tie Vanderbilt atop the SEC standings with a 15-3 league record, but VU – by topping the Tide by a point on Jan. 5 and then by two (as noted above) on Feb. 4 – locked up the tiebreaker well in advance of the regular season finale at Florida on March 4. Vanderbilt already had the SEC sewn up by then, so a loss to the Gators didn’t matter one bit, especially at a point in history when the NCAA tournament had not yet been seeded. (That didn’t begin until 1979.)
Vanderbilt made its way to the NCAA tournament with a 23-3 record, and one of those losses was essentially a throwaway game. Hopes were high that VU could crack the Final Four and make its way to Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina. If VU had been able to make the national semifinals, Kansas – the team it drubbed earlier in the season – would have awaited in the Final Four, opposite North Carolina State and UCLA.
Standing in Vanderbilt’s way in the Sweet 16 (the first game of the tournament for most teams in those days) was Marquette. Three years later, in 1977, the Warriors (as they were then called) were not expecting to get an at-large invite to the Dance, but they did… and they rode it to head coach Al McGuire’s only national title in Milwaukee. In 1974, though, there was no doubt about Marquette’s NCAA tournament legitimacy. The Warriors started the season at No. 7 in the AP poll, and lost only four games during the regular season, one more than VU. Maurice Lucas, who put together a distinguished NBA career (complete with a world champion as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977), became a better pro than anyone else on the floor. If Marquette was going to beat Vanderbilt, one would have thought that Lucas was going to make the difference.
Instead, it was the Warriors’ efficiency as a team, beating a balanced VU squad at its own game.
The game wasn’t decided by a single player. Lucas endured a rough 5-of-18 performance from the field, but three teammates picked him up. Lloyd Walton, Maurice Ellis, and Earl Tatum combined to hit 19 of 25 shots, a ridiculous 76-percent clip. Marquette finished at 52 percent for the game. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, sank to a 35-percent shooting rate. Compton, the best scorer on the team, suffered through a 4-of-13 outing. Butch Feher was 3-of-12. Van Breda Kolff was just 2-of-5. Vanderbilt did still commit fewer fouls (no Commodore picked up more than three), earning a plus-8 scoring margin at the foul line (21-13), but Marquette’s attentive defense and crisp offense were too much. The Warriors won, 69-61, and Vanderbilt’s dream died.
As wrenching as that loss was, however, the Commodores climbed the mountain in the SEC once again. Skinner had managed to conquer Kentucky a second time. Those near misses over the previous several seasons lost some of their sting. A program had earned a substantial new level of respect. A team created one of the prouder moments in a school’s sporting history.
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