It has become common among Southeastern Conference teams to start the season with a pushover opponent. In Vanderbilt basketball history, the Commodores have frequently started the season with a game against an opponent that either won their conference the year before or played in the NCAA tournament. Roy Skinner did not believe in playing cream puffs. C.M. Newton started a few seasons against top-flight competition. Let's take a look at five historic season openers.
1966-67 was expected to be a major rebuilding year for the Commodores. Gone from the best Vanderbilt senior class ever were Clyde Lee, Keith Thomas, Wayne Calvert, and Ron Green. In 1965-66, Vanderbilt remained in the top 10 for the entire season. The black and gold were the number two team in the nation on New Year's Day.
Returning in 1966-67 were a group of quick players who could shoot the ball. The team lacked size, and rebounding was expected to be a major problem. The schedule was difficult with out of conference games slated against preseason number two Duke, top team in the Southwest Conference and preseason top 20 team SMU, the best Middle Atlantic Conference and Big Five team LaSalle, and top 10 Western Kentucky. The Game against WKU was the season opener at Diddle Arena in Bowling Green. The Hilltoppers were a 12-point favorite.
The starting lineup was rather small. Bo Wyenandt and Bob Warren, both about 6-03 1/2 were the forwards. 6-07 Kenny Gibbs was the center. 6-02 Jerry Southwood and 6-04 Tom Hagan were the guards. The top reserves were 6-00 Kenny Campbell and 6-06 Gene Lockyear. Number eight man Bob Bundy was the tallest key contributor at 6-09.
Western Kentucky returned four starters from a 25-3 team the year before. Included in the list of returnees were all-American Clem "The Gem" Haskins and Wayne Chapman (father of Rex) who at 6-06 was a tough match up at guard.
The evening got off to a great start as the Vandy freshmen upset Western's freshmen 73-65. Art Welhoelter shot lights out from 15-20 feet and pumped in 25 points, while Perry Wallace added 18 points and 21 rebounds. This pumped up the varsity.
Western bolted out to an early lead, but never by more than four points. Vanderbilt tied the game at 22-22, and then took the lead at 24-22. The Commodores would not relinquish that lead, pulling off the upset 76-70. Playing strictly man-to-man defense, the Commodores held the Hilltoppers to well under 40% from the field. Coach Skinner, always an advocate of fast-paced basketball surprised the opponents with a more ball-control approach. Western Kentucky was forced to foul down the stretch, and the Commodores responded by sinking foul shots again and again. The star was Gene Southwood who hit a perfect 12 of 12 (10 in the final two minutes and change) at the charity stripe on his way to a 22-point game. Wyenadt added 10 and Campbell came off the bench to score 10. The shocking part of the game was that the Commodores dominated on the boards, rarely giving Western a second shot. Gibbs, the Somerset, Kentucky native, led all players with 13 boards, while Warren and Wyenandt added eight apiece. Haskins scored 24 points for WKU and Champan added 17.
After three so-so years of 12-14, 13-13, and 16-10, not many experts were giving Vanderbilt much of a chance against defending Final Four participant Louisville. Added to the difficulty was that this game could not be played in Freedom Hall due to a conflict with a convention. It was moved to the ancient tiny downtown arena where the old SEC Tournament used to be played. Vandy's lone SEC tourney win had been there almost 22 years earlier.
This group of Commodores was the biggest bunch ever. 7-04 senior center Steve Turner joined two 6-08 senior forward/centers who looked more like NFL defensive ends, Ray Maddux and Rod Freeman. Coach Skinner could call on two 6-07 guards, Jan Van Breda Kolff and Lee Fowler. 6-03 Bill Ligon and 6-04 Terry Compton could play both guard and forward. On this team were three freshmen who would go on to fame in the ensuing years: Jeff Fosnes, Butch Feher, and Joe Ford (The F-Troop). Only Ford would see significant action early in the season, but by the end of the year all three frosh were playing regularly. Former starter Chris Schweer returned to the team after a year off to become the eleventh player.
Louisville coach Denny Crum was a disciple of the best coach of all time, John Wooden. The Cards used a multiple 2-2-1 zone press, a pressure man-to-man defense and of course the single, high post offense with an emphasis on shooting in Crum‘s pet triangles (three areas in the paint). Crum had three fabulous sophomores on his team, and they would lead the Cards back to the Final Four as seniors in 1975. Junior Bridgeman, Allen Murphy, and Terry Howard all started. Howard, an excellent foul shooter, would hit 100% from the foul line as a senior in 1975 until missing the last foul shot of his career. Unfortunately, that miss cost the Cards a spot in the finals against Kentucky.
The Commodores broke out of the gate scoring the game's first six points. Louisville didn't score until almost four minutes had elapsed. The Cards forged their way into a tie at 17, then Maddux hit three straight shots as Vandy opened a 26-19 lead. The Cards devastating press began to pay dividends, and U of L ran off 11 unanswered points to take a 30-26 lead. Freeman stopped the bleeding with a couple of close in power moves, and Vandy forged back into the lead at the break at 36-34.
In the second half, it was Vanderbilt's defense which forced the turnovers. Louisville's guards had trouble conncting on the entry pass and threw the ball away several times. Meanwhile, Terry Compton found his touch and began sinking jump shots. Vandy's lead lengthened to eight points with five minutes to go, and Skinner called for the stall. Louisville was forced to foul, something that rarely worked against Vandy during the Roy Skinner days. Point guard Van Breda Kolff went to the line and hit six of seven to ice the game. Louisville had no answer, as the Commodores won 66-57. Compton led five double figure scorers with 22. Freeman, Maddux, Ligon, and VBK all had 10. Maddux pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds. Only one freshman, Ford saw action. Skinner was confident enough in his ball-handling ability to leave him in the game in the final moments as a second point guard. Ford and VBK kept the ball away from the Cards for over one minute on one possession.
This was a tossup game to start the 1974-75 season. Vandy had won the SEC championship the year before, but four key contributors were missing. Gone were SEC player of the year Van Breda Kolff, Compton, Ligon, and Fowler. The F-Troop returned though, so all hope was not lost. Joining Fosnes (6-06), Feher (6-03), and Ford (6-02) in the opening night starting lineup were 6-07 Mike Moore and 6-09 Bob Chess. Reserves included 6-10 center Neil Bemenderfer, 6-09 center/forward John Snead, 6-04 forward Tom Schultz, 6-03 guard Ted Govedarica, 6-05 forward Tom Kramb, and 5-10 sparkplug Dickie Keffer.
St. John's already had played twice and blew out two patsies. The Red Men had four starters returning from a 20-7 team in 1974, led by all-ECAC forward George Johnson, a future pro. Coach Lou Carnesecca favored a conservative style of ball, using a man to man defense with zone principles and a half-court passing offense.
What was supposed to be a barn-burner quickly turned into a lop-sided affair. This was one of those nights when everything Vandy did succeeded. The F-troop and Moore were red hot. They couldn't miss in the first half, as Vandy put the game away quite early. St. John's couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. Fosnes held the heralded Johnson to just eight points. Only one Johnny player hit double figures, and that was Bill "Beaver" Smith with 11. Vandy took a 46-30 lead into the locker. St. John's never mounted a challenge in the second half. Skinner pulled the air out of the ball with six minutes to go, and the Commodore players took turns shooting free throws down the stretch, winning 73-53.
Pacing the way for Vandy was the F-troop. Fosnes and Feher each had 20, and Ford scored 18. Moore was the fourth player in double figures with 11. Both he and Feher enjoyed double doubles, as they each had 10 rebounds. Two freshmen played well in their black and gold debuts. Snead pulled down five rebounds and held his own on defense. Keffer came in and ran the offense superbly with Ford shifting to the shooting guard. Eventually, Keffer would replace Chess in a smaller lineup.
Coming off a disappointing 15-11 season and already having lost key reserve Tom Schultz for the season, this group of Commodores was expected to struggle to finish with a winning record. Having lost to Athletes in Action in a preseason exhibition game by 38 points, nobody expected Vandy to win on the road against a Big Eight team. Just a year earlier, the docile Coach Skinner almost physically attacked two Big Eight officials in Lincoln, Nebraska, after witnessing the most partially-officiated half in Vanderbilt history.
Iowa State was a three point pick to win the opener. Former MTSU coach Ken Trickey had come to Ames and turned around a moribund program, finishing 16-11 in 1975. The Cyclones returned one of the top players in the nation in Hercle "Poison" Ivy, who averaged almost 30 points a game the year before.
Vanderbilt had an experienced team returning. Only Bob Chess had graduated, and by the end of the year, he rarely played. Starting at center was the sophomore John Snead. Mike Moore and the F-troop rounded out the starting five. In reserve were Neil Bemenderfer (6-10), Dickie Keffer (5-10), Spence Young (6-08) and freshmen Carl Crain (6-10), Tim Thompson (6-03), Keith Page (6-04), and Jay Lowenthal (6-03).
The day had been happy so far on West End Avenue. Earlier, The Commodore football team had come from behind to beat Tennessee in Knoxville. This game promised to be just as exciting, as both coaches favored up-tempo basketball.
Like they did the year before, Vandy came out hot and stayed on fire for 40 minutes. The Commodores opened in a 2-3 zone, and Iowa State hurried their shots. Vandy rebounded well and ran the break to near-perfection. The end result was a bevy of layups and short jumpers. The same four players who scored well in the prior year's opening game repeated their feat on the road. Vanderbilt led 48-37 at the half. Coach Skinner switched defenses to a sinking, floating man-to-man to start the second half, and The Cyclones were caught by surprise. Vandy put the game away quickly in the second half by extending the lead to 57-37, with a majority of the points scored on fast break attempts. Iowa State never threatened, as the Commodores kept getting open shots. Skinner finally emptied the bench late, as the reserves scored the points that put Vandy over the Century mark. Meanwhile, the great Ivy was a dud. He eventually ended up scoring 16 points, but the last eight came in the final two minutes against the Commodores' second five. Vandy won 105-80 with four players combining for 75 points. Ford led the balanced attack with 21. Fosnes hit for 20. Moore scored 18, and Feher tallied 16. Fosnes and Feher each hauled in 11 rebounds.
This was the debut for new Commodore coach C.M. Newton, who was returning to the coaching world after a one-year hiatus following a successful 12-year run at Alabama. Vandy had fallen on hard times with 13-13 and 15-14 seasons under Richard Schmidt the previous two years. To make matters worse, The Commodores saw one of their best combos ever pick up their sheepskins. Gone were Charles Davis and Mike Rhodes. Also gone was Brian Allsmiller. Vandy was given no chance to upset Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Vandy opened with 6-04 Al Miller and 6-01 Al McKinney at guards; 6-09 Jeff Turner and 6-08 Ted Young at forwards; and 6-08 Willie "Hutch" Jones at center. Just who could contribute off the bench was a major question mark. James Williams had started and played well as a freshman in 1980, but he was injured the entire 1981 season and wasn't a factor; his recovery would be slow and not allow him to star until the following season. Jimmy Lenz had been expected to contribute more, but a knee injury slowed his progress; he would forever be a bench-warmer. The only freshman expected to contribute was diminutive 5-11 guard Phil Cox, a sharpshooter from Dayhoit, Kentucky, who wore number double zero. Cox had won the coveted Mr. Basketball award in Kentucky but drew no interest from the home-state Wildcats.
This game looked bad for the black and gold from the outset. Duke ran their 5-man motion offense to perfection in the first half, while Vandy was cold. The Blue Devils opened a double-digit lead early and looked like they were going to run the Commodores out of the gym. Duke's Vince Taylor and Chip Engelland nearly outscored Vandy in the first half, as the Blue Devils led 38-26. The lead increased to 48-34 in the first seven minutes of the second half. During a timeout, Coach Newton inserted the freshman Cox into the game and told him not to pass up any open shots.
Through the first 27 minutes, Cox had scored just one basket. Doing as instructed, he started shooting, and shooting, and shooting. All of a sudden, the Commodores were on a roll. Cox hit from 20 feet out. He hit several 15-20 foot shots. He faked the 20-footer and drove into the key for a 10-footer. Then, on a fast-break, he faked out two Duke defenders with a spin move and hit a lay up splitting the two Blue Devils. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout and tried to adjust his defense. Cox faced a double team, so he whipped a pass to Turner for a wide open shot. Vandy cut the fourteen point lead down to six late in the game.
Fouling Duke in the final few minutes, the Blue Devils missed several shots. Turner pulled down every critical rebound and found Cox on the outlet. The Blue Devils fouled him. As the nation would soon find out, fouling Phil Cox was not how you stopped him, as Cox would leave Vandy with a career free throw percentage of 86.2%. Double Zero hit every one he attempted that night. Vandy tied the score at 64-all with a few seconds left. A desperation heave by Duke at the buzzer wasn't close, and the game went to overtime.
In the overtime, the team in possession of the ball attempted to stall. Duke finally scored a basket to take a 66-64 lead with less than a minute left, and Cox was given the task of responding. He was fouled late in the overtime and cooly sank both to force another overtime. In the second extra five-minute period, Cox got some help. Turner hit three bank shots from close range to forge Vandy ahead for the first time since early in the game. Leading 74-73, Vandy had the ball with less than 20 seconds to go. Cox asked for and received the ball. Duke was forced to foul. Cox sank two more to bring his foul shooting for the night to 10 for 10. Duke scored at the buzzer, but it wasn't enough. Final: Vandy 76 Duke 75.
Cox ended the game with 30 points. He scored the final 15 Vandy points in regulation. In addition to his perfect night at the foul line, he was 10-13 from the field. Almost overshadowed was a great night by the sophomore Turner. Turner scored 20 points on 8-10 shooting from the field and pulled down 14 rebounds.
You can chalk up another great opener this season. Vandy played aggressively, and the defensive effort was as good as an opening game can be expected to be. Kudos to Dawid Przybyszewski for playing like Clyde Lee. J-werd and Corey Smith played strong games, while DeMarre Carroll played much like Butch Feher. Don't fret about Shan Foster; remember, Jeff Fosnes took about a dozen games before he began to click as a freshman. Foster, Carroll, and Gordon remind me a great deal of the F-Troop.
In the Tennessee State game, I came away very impressed with Alan Metcalfe. He displayed a great pair of hands and good court presence. If you remember Steve Patterson with UCLA, that's who Metcalfe reminded me of in his short time in the game.
We have an exciting team to watch. Whether they will win enough games to return to the NCAA tournament is still a mystery. They won't lose many by being out-hustled. And yes, this team is much more athletic. Watching Foster leap as high as the loudspeaker to keep an errant pass from going out of bounds, and still having the ability to bat it one-handed to Carroll proved that point.
Phil Cox lit up Duke and Krzyzewski for 30 points in his Vanderbilt debut. (VU Photo)