Added to this quartet was a fairly good returning group of lettermen from a team that went 9-5 in the SEC the year before. Junior center Bob "Snake" Grace had led the SEC in rebounding in 1962-63; Grace would actually open the season as the starting center with Lee at forward. They would flip-flop early in the year.
John Ed Miller and Roger Schurig were the starting guards. At 6-01, Miller played several inches taller. He could move to forward if called upon. Schurig was a streaky shooter. He might miss his first 10 shots, and then hit 10 in a row. When on, nobody could stop him. He could score 30 points in a half.
In the frontcourt, starting alongside Lee and Grace was 6-04 junior Wayne Taylor. Taylor was a defensive specialist frequently called on to guard the opposition's best player. He could score points, but he wasn't asked to do so that often.
Backing up in the frontcourt was the teams lone senior contributor Bob Hines. Hines could play center or forward and like Grace, Hines had the ability to battle with anybody on the boards. Junior Mike Gambill was another forward prospect who showed promise.
Preseason practices were not crisp. Coach Skinner was worried that this team was not ready to start the season. A narrow three-point win over the freshmen in the annual varsity-freshman game further strengthened the worries. As it turned out, the freshmen quintet of Jerry Southwood, Kenny Gibbs, Ron Knox, Kenny Campbell, and Gene Lockyear were quite good, and the varsity was not playing so poorly.
The season began with a road trip to the state where all the nation had turned their eyes toward--Texas. The Commodores opened the season with games at Rice and SMU, the top two teams in the Southwest Conference.
Rice was a ten-point favorite over the Commodores. The Owls were led by all-American candidate Kendall Rhine, a 6-11 center who averaged over 25 points and 14 rebounds a game the year before. Rhine was the middle spoke of a tough 1-3-1 zone defense.
Vanderbilt opened the game in a zone and then switched back and forth to a man-to-man defense. Rice handled the two defenses well for a few minutes, but soon afterwards, Vandy began extending their defenses, and The Owls had problems getting the ball inside.
Both teams opened the game with a flood of shooting. After two minutes, 12 points had been scored (remember no shot clock or 3-pointers then). Vandy took their first lead at 7-5, and the black and gold held that lead for the rest of the half, ahead 46-43 at the break. Snake Grace had carried the offensive load early, surprisingly scoring points away from the basket. Clyde Lee was able to play underneath the basket, so Grace was able to move out trying to draw Rhine away from the goal. Rice stayed in the game with the hot shooting of guard Larry Phillips, who hit numerous outside jumpers on his way to a 21-point half. The star Rhine added 12.
In the second half, Rice assumed the lead once again early, but Vandy forged back into a tie at 53 apiece. Following a rebound, Vandy began a huge run which put the game out of reach. The Owls were held scoreless, while the Gold Men scored 16 unanswered points. Rice made a small run, but the Owls could never get the deficit back into single digits. Vandy cruised to an 82-68 win.
Four Commodores hit for double figures, with three of them posting double-doubles. Lee led the team with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Grace added 17 points and 11 rebounds. Schurig hit for 15 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. Miller scored 17 points as well. Off the bench, Hines almost reached double figures, ending with nine points. Rhine had a great game with 19 points and 18 rebounds, but overall Vandy won the battle of the boards by 10.
Next on the schedule was a trip to fateful Dallas to play SMU. Commodore beat writer for the Nashville Banner, Dudley "Waxo" Green, stepped out of character for a few hours and visited Dealey Plaza reporting on his experiences. For Coach Skinner, this game was the tougher of the two games in his opinion. SMU coach Doc Hayes was in the middle of a small SWC dynasty, having taken the Mustangs to the Final Four in that time. SMU started a beefy quintet with three tough inside players all 6-07 or taller and brawny.
To make matters worse, Roger Schurig had suffered a broken nose at the end of the Rice game. He would start and play, but how much he could contribute was a question. Skinner had played both Schurig and John Ed Miller the entire 40 minutes against Rice, but Schurig would need some rest in this game. His replacement was the sophomore Keith Thomas, and Thomas provided a shot-in-the-arm at the most appropriate time. In the first half, Thomas scored a basket to tie the game, and in the second half Thomas drove the lane and hit a basket while being hacked. He converted the three-pointer to put Vandy ahead for good, as the Commodores breezed to a 79-60 win over the Mustangs.
Although they committed 28 turnovers, the Commodores once again dominated the boards 40-28. Lee once again paved the way in scoring with 25 points and added 16 rebounds to lead all players. Miller hit for 15 points and Grace scored 10. Off the bench, Ron Green hit every shot he attempted, going 5-5 and 1-1 at the line for 11 points.
Vanderbilt played game number three on the road as well. The Commodores ventured 90 minutes north to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to play Western Kentucky in the dedication game at E.A. Diddle Arena. The legendary Coach Diddle had a small, but quick team led by senior guard Darel Carrier. Carrier was in shooting range the moment he walked into the gym. He would later star in the American Basketball Association with the Kentucky Colonels and team with Louie Dampier to form the most dangerous three-point shooting tandem in the history of pro basketball. He retired as the all-time ABA leader in 3-point percentage.
Vanderbilt had the decided height advantage in this game as no Hilltopper starter was taller than 6-05. The Hilltoppers pressed early and tried to keep the ball out of the hands of Lee and Grace. It worked, as Western built a double-digit lead and still led 27-20 after 16 minutes of play. Coach Skinner sent in sophomore guard Wayne "Pops" Calvert in a smaller, quicker lineup. Calvert quickly displayed his ability to produce instant offense. Less than 30 seconds into the game, he hit his first shot. Moments later, he fired again and hit. Vanderbilt fought back and gained the lead by one. With two seconds left in the half, Calvert caught an outlet pass, dribbled once, and fired from two feet behind halfcourt. In Barry Goheen fashion, the ball ripped the nets. Vandy went to the locker up 34-31 feeling invincible.
In the second half, it was the reliable, older players who won the game. Miller and Grace got the hot hands, with Grace grabbing over a dozen second half rebounds. The Commodores gradually pulled away from the host Toppers and won 82-60. This time the Gold Men won the battle of the boards by 21(47-26). Once again Lee and Grace sported double-doubles, Lee with 11 and 13, while Grace had 10 and 17. Miller led the team with 20 points, while Taylor and Calvert chipped in 10 each. Carrier scored 24 for Western on a typically good shooting night, but the remainder of the WKU players shot about 35% combined.
At 3-0, Vandy returned to the friendly confines of Memorial Gym to face the toughest team on the schedule. Coming to town for the first home game was the number two-ranked Duke Blue Devils, a team that would eventually play UCLA in the finals of the NCAA. Duke featured one of the best wing players in the country in Jeff Mullins, a future NBA multi-year all-star with the San Francisco/Golden State Warriors (and future teammate of Clyde Lee). The Blue Devil front line included two 6-10 giants, Jay Buckley and Hack Tison. Ron Herbster and Buzzy Harrison rounded out the starting lineup. Sixth man Jack Marin later was an all-NBA forward with the Baltimore Bullets, and seventh man Steve Vacendak (who would eventually become a starter) later played with the Minnesota Pipers of the ABA.
This game was one for the ages. Vanderbilt broke out of the gate with perhaps their best 20 minutes of action in school history. After 20 minutes, the Commodores led 48-35. In the battle of the giants, Vandy's big men did a number on Duke's. The black and gold led on the boards 37-15 at the intermission, and Lee had 18 of those. John Ed Miller hit almost every shot he took in the first 20 minutes Only a few key steals by the Duke guards kept the Blue Devils in the game in the first half.
In the second half, the Blue Devils began chipping away at the lead. More missed shots started falling into enemy hands, while Vanderbilt continued to commit costly turnovers, and Duke converted at the offensive end. At the halfway point of the second period, the lead was gone. Duke went ahead with less than 10 minutes to go and held onto that lead for five minutes. Vandy tied the score at 71-71, and then Lee hit a short jumper to put Vandy up 73-71. Duke quickly tied the game on a jumper by Mullins. For the remaining five minutes, Vandy would score and Duke would score to tie it. The buzzer sounded with the score knotted at 85-85.
Duke scored first in the overtime, but John Ed Miller took over from there. He quickly tied the game on a short jumper, and then put Vandy ahead for good a minute later. The Commodores outscored the Blue Devils 12-7 in the extra period and beat the number two team 97-92. Miller nearly broke the scoring mark set by Jim Henry by tallying 39 points. Lee scored 21 points and pulled down 26 rebounds to set a new record. Schurig added 11 and Taylor hit for 10. Grace scored only one basket, but he pulled down 16 rebounds. Meanwhile Wayne Taylor did a number on Mullins. Mullins ended with 16 points, but he hit only 6 of 20 from the field. Buckley led Duke with 23 points, while Marin came off the bench for 19. Vandy won the rebounding battle 57-39. Lee and Miller shared SEC Player of the Week honors.
Arkansas came to town next. Any worries about a let down were quickly vanquished. Arkansas preferred a slow-paced game, but Vandy took the Razorbacks out of their comfort zone with an all-out run and gun attack. The Commodores used the full-court press and fast break on nearly every possession in gaining a 50-41 lead at the break. Roger Schurig finally had the hot hand, and he went on a scoring binge in the second half. Arkansas cut the lead to 82-74, when Schurig hit two long jumpers to ignite a Commodore run to the finish. Vandy won 101-77, with three players combining for 83 points. Schurig finished with 32; Lee once again had a double-double with 29 points and 16 boards; and Miller pumped in 22 points. Arkansas had three men with double figure rebounds, but Vandy still won the rebounding battle 61-50. Both teams attempted over 80 shots, so there were ample rebounding opportunities. In the end, Vandy's frenetic pace wore Arkansas down, and the end result was several easy fast break points.
At 5-0, Vanderbilt entered the top 10 at number eight. Victim number six was TCU. More will be said about this game in a future article, but this was a record-setting win. Vandy blew away the Horned Frogs by 57 points, more than doubling the score at 113-56. Coach Skinner removed the starters just a few minutes into the second half, but a 30-point lead kept widening with the second five. Nine of the 10 Commodores scored eight points or more led by Taylor with 22 points. Vandy missed attempting 100 field goals by just two and pulled down 70 rebounds, led by Taylor's 16. Of the second five, Thomas was red hot and scored 16 points. TCU couldn't handle the pace either.
Vanderbilt played at Louisville just before Christmas and came away with a 91-82 win over the Cardinals. Ron Green came off the bench to record a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, while Snake Grace shook off a scoring slump to add 18 points and 13 rebounds. Lee narrowly missed being the third Commodore with a double-double, leading the team with 26 points and gathering nine boards. Thomas scored 12, and Schurig added 10. For the third straight game, the opponents' fatigue played a major factor in the outcome. Vandy was running teams out of the gym.
At 7-0, Vandy moved up to 6th in the polls at the Christmas break. Nashville was blessed with a white Christmas in 1963, but with the snow came sub-zero temperatures. All the heat appeared to be horded at Memorial Gym.
Between the holidays came the inaugural Vanderbilt Invitational Tournament. In the opening round, Vandy faced undefeated Memphis State. For the first time all season, the Commodores were as cold as the outside air. However, with the two rebounding wizards playing volleyball with the backboard, it almost didn't matter how many shots Vandy missed. On this night, the Commodores hit only 33 of 89 attempts, but Lee and Grace combined for 37 rebounds. The Commodores won 85-79. Lee and Grace were a combined 8-40 shooting. Each scored 13 points with Lee getting 19 rebounds and Grace getting 18. Miller led all scorers with 22 points, and Calvert came off the bench for instant offense and tallied 16.
The win put Vandy in the championship game against South Carolina. Gamecock center Jim Fox was a future NBA center, but against the Commodores, he tallied just one free throw and two rebounds. Meanwhile, five Commodores hit for double figures, as Vandy breezed to a 106-78 pasting over USC. The Commodores took 91 shots and hit over half (46). Once again, the rebounding figures were scary, as Vandy won this battle 60-36. Pacing the way was tourney co-MVP Lee with 24 points and 11 rebounds. The other co-MVP Miller tallied 21 points. Bob Hines and Ron Green came off the bench to score 19 and 13 respectively, while Schurig added 10.
At 9-0, sixth-ranked Vandy faced a mediocre VMI squad to close out the pre-conference part of the schedule. As the city was virtually paralyzed by a 10-inch snowfall on New Year's Day, Coach Skinner was faced with a decision to make. Wayne Taylor had an ankle injury and wouldn't be able to play. For the first time all season, the starting lineup had to be changed. Hines would replace Taylor in the lineup. Skinner also inserted Calvert into the lineup for Schurig who had not been practicing well. Against the Keydets, the moves were the correct ones. The senior Hines paced the Commodores with 18 points, as Vandy won 87-71 to improve to 10-0. Lee added 16 points and 23 rebounds. Vandy may have been looking forward to their first two conference games (Against Tennessee and Kentucky), as they fought to a 27-27 tie in the first half. Once again, the opponent tired, and Vandy went on a huge run to put the game away with 10 minutes to go.
Combined with a 5-0 finish the year before, Vandy had now won 15 games in a row. The bubble would burst in Knoxville in the new year, but Vandy came home to record a shocking victory over Kentucky (more about that game at a later date).
In the 10-0 start, the Commodores outscored its opposition by 19 points a game (92.3 to 72.3). They out-rebounded the opponents by 14.3. They shot 45.2% to 37.2% for the opponents. Lee averaged 19.5 points and 15.5 rebounds, while Miller averaged 19.9 points. Grace averaged 12.3 rebounds in this stretch. Vandy was loaded with talent, but they would fade to an 8-6 SEC record and 19-6 overall (they beat Arkansas State 108-73 in the middle of the SEC schedule).
Most of the talent returned a year later, and Vandy won the SEC championship. These teams were exciting beyond description. If you blinked, you missed at least one shot. Skinner's philosophy was that basketball was meant to be played up-tempo, and slowing the game down was a detriment to good basketball. It also greatly helped recruiting, as several stars listed the Skinner playing style as one of their reasons for coming to Nashville.
Coming Next: The greatest week in Vandy basketball history. That wonderful triumph over the Tar Heel State in December of 1967.