O-rena holds sweet memories for Vanderbilt fans

As the Vanderbilt men's basketball team opens NCAA Tournament play Friday vs. Western Michigan in Orlando's TD Waterhouse Centre... it will be doing so in a place that holds some good memories for longtime Commodore fans.

It only dawned on me yesterday... as Vanderbilt opens NCAA Tournament play Friday vs. Western Michigan in Orlando's TD Waterhouse Centre, it will be doing so in a place that holds some good memories for longtime Commodore fans.

In 1990 the Waterhouse Centre (then called the Orlando Arena, or the "O-Rena" for short) was the site of the SEC Tournament. I haven't looked it up, but it was probably the most poorly attended SEC Tournament of the modern era.

Kentucky was on probation and ineligible to play, so the usual army of Wildcat fans didn't bother to make it down. Orlando is about two hours south of the SEC's southeastern-most city, Gainesville, so it proved kind of an odd place to host the tournament. The SEC hasn't been back since, and probably never will.

But Vandy fans who made the trip to see Eddie Fogler's first team play indubitably got their money's worth.

1990 had been a down year for SEC basketball. Rick Pitino was in his first year at Kentucky, but the Cats had been severely weakened by probation. LSU had a trio of spectacular superstars in Chris Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and Stanley Roberts, but had still been unable to win the conference championship. The regular-season title had gone to Georgia, led by its great student-athlete center, Alec Kessler.

Arkansas and South Carolina had not yet joined the league. The SEC was looking for a new commissioner, and Vandy's Athletic Director Roy Kramer had applied for the job.

Vanderbilt had struggled to a 14-13 regular season in Fogler's first year. Led by seniors Derrick Wilcox and Eric Reid, the Commodores had lost seven straight SEC games at one point. Despite the fact it had rallied for a big Senior Night win over Tennessee, Vandy was expected to go quietly in its league tournament.

On the first night Vandy, the No. 8 seed, played against Florida, the No. 9 seed. Florida, which had won the SEC the year before (by virtue of a tennis ball), had lost Dwayne Schintzius to a dismissal in midseason. The Gators had also lost Coach Norm Sloan before the season started, and former Tennessee coach Don DeVoe was coaching on an interim basis. The Gator program was in something of a shambles.

The night before the first game, I had a nightmare that Schintzius was announced as a surprise starter for Florida, back just in time to play in the SEC Tournament-- but it didn't happen. Vandy won fairly easily, 68-58.

The next day, Friday, there were three straight upsets. Ole Miss, led by All-SEC first-teamer Gerald Glass, upset Tennessee, led by impressive freshman Allan Houston. Next 7th-seeded Auburn, coached by Tommy Joe Eagles, proceeded to shell-shock LSU in overtime. (Of LSU head coach Dale Brown, reporters sneered afterwards that "perhaps never had one coach done so little with so much.")

Orlando is often called the "Magic City", and the Orlando Arena is the home of the NBA's Magic-- and Friday evening turned out to be a magical one for Vanderbilt. Largely behind the shooting of Scott Draud and the strong inside play of Reid, Vandy neutralized Kessler and upset No. 1-seeded Georgia, 78-74.

For a while on Saturday it looked as though Vanderbilt might be headed to the finals, but Ole Miss and Glass would edge out Vandy in an afternoon nail-biter, 65-62. Alabama would knock out Auburn to set up an improbable Alabama-Ole Miss final.

That year ABC was televising the final nationally, and the network sent its big guns, Keith Jackson and Dick Vitale. I'll never forget how upset and dismayed Jackson and Vitale were to be televising Alabama vs. Ole Miss! They had come expecting perhaps a Georgia-vs.-LSU, Kessler-vs.-O'Neal battle in the final; instead, they watched as Wimp Sanderson, the man in plaid, coached the Crimson Tide to the tournament championship.

Vandy had lost seven straight in the SEC that year previously, but a strong finish and two SEC Tournament wins would be enough to propel Vandy into the NIT. Amazingly, Vandy won five straight games, went all the way to New York City, and captured the school's only NIT Championship.

Not that it really has any bearing in this year's NCAA Tournament, but Vandy represented itself very well in the O-Rena all those years ago-- and those like me who attended that tournament were left with some great memories. The TD Waterhouse Centre is a great venue-- a true basketball arena rather than a dome-type setting. There's not a bad seat in it, and there are lots of things to do in the immediate area, should fans end up with time to kill.

Vandy's all-time record at the facility is 2-1. Should Vanderbilt prove capable of lassoing more of that latent magic... the record could be 4-1 by Sunday evening.

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