These statements were made just after Skinner discovered that the Vanderbilt Law School would allow first-year law student Kenny Campbell to play basketball. Campbell had graduated in May, 1967, but had a year of eligibility left due to a redshirt season in 1966. A 6-0 guard from Oak Ridge, not only was Campbell fast, he could jump like a rabbit and dunk with ease.
Joining him in the backcourt was perhaps Vanderbilt's finest offensive player ever. Tom "Tommy Gun" Hagan, a 6-4 junior from Louisville, had slipped through the cracks in Kentucky. A deadly shooter from 25 feet and in, Hagan could drive the lane and find an open hole. A keen ball hawk, he ran the fast break as well as anyone. He might have averaged over 30 points a game in 1969 if the 3-point shot had been in effect.
The frontcourt was manned by the three W's. 6-6 Bob Warren could play on the perimeter or under the basket. His patented shot, which brought huge cheers from the crowd, was a drive into the lane and reverse lay-up. Youth all over Nashville (myself included) tried to copy this move, much to the dislike of youth league coaches. (Of course, all of us were trying to mimic Pete Maravich too, so youth coaches couldn't win.) The other forward was Bo Wyenandt, who at 6-3 could also play guard. Wyenandt had been the breakout sophomore star in 1966, and as a senior, he was mentioned in pre-season honorable all-American lists. At center was 6-5 Perry Wallace. Wallace was the very first African American basketball player in the SEC. Books could be written about the experiences, mostly negative, which occurred on the road; I'll leave that to another time.
The bench was thin, especially at the start of the season. Bob Bundy, one of the most highly rated recruits ever to choose Vandy, was a 6-9 junior who had stayed in Skinner's doghouse since coming to Nashville. He had difficulties keeping his weight to a manageable level, and this along with some other things forced Skinner for the first time in his career to temporarily suspend a player. Bundy had a sweet shooting touch, the best on the team. Later in the season he would earn a starting spot, when Skinner moved Wyenandt to guard. When Bundy was on, he could take a dozen shots from five to 15 feet out and hit ten.
6-6 senior Gene Lockyear was a muscular player who could rebound and play post defense. Sophomore guard Dan Due had offensive potential, as he had broken many of Louie Dampier's high school scoring records in Indianapolis. His ball-handling and defensive abilities still needed to be developed.
Skinner was quite pleased with this starting five, and noted that any of them could lead the fast break and fill lanes. Not having to wait for one particular player to get to a set spot made his fast-break offense even faster.
Memorial Gymnasium had seen the completion of the south balconies, and capacity had risen to over 11,000. The gym sold out well before the start of the season, and a Vanderbilt basketball ticket was a valued commodity. The roar of the sellout crowds, combined with one of the South's best pep bands playing music like "Casino Royale" and "Windy," made Memorial one of the best home courts in the country.
The 1967-68 team would sneak up on no one; preseason polls ranked Vanderbilt No. 9 nationally. Skinner knew this team would be loaded, and he had scheduled a group of elite out-of-conference opponents: SMU, the defending SWC champion, which had upset Wes Unseld and Louisville in the NCAA's in 1967; North Carolina, the defending ACC champion and Final Four participant, picked No. 4 in the preseason; Davidson, picked No. 10, returning all five starters; Duke, tabbed No. 12; Seton Hall, the top team in the New York-New Jersey metro area; Oregon, picked to contend with USC for runner-up status in the Pac-8; and Michigan State, a strong Big Ten team. Experts selected Vanderbilt's schedule as the nation's toughest.
In the opener in Dallas, it took an overtime for Vandy to pull out an 88-84 squeaker over SMU. Hagan had the hot hand the entire night, hitting for 34 points, while Wyenandt added 23. The win reminded many of the year before, when the Commodores had won all four overtime games. Auburn came to Memorial Gym next for the home and conference opener. With Wallace and Warren dominating on the glass and hitting Hagan to start the break, Vandy quickly built a double-digit lead in the second half and held onto it for the duration, winning 78-65.
Ranked No. 8 by AP, Vandy (2-0) now faced three home games against nationally ranked teams from the state of North Carolina. Coming in to Memorial in an eight-day December stretch were No. 5 North Carolina, No. 6 Davidson and No. 12 Duke. Skinner spent almost an entire practice running fast break drills prior to the North Carolina game. He knew Tar Heel coach Dean Smith would try to pressure the ball to prevent the outlet pass, so he installed several options for getting the ball down the floor if the regular outlet pass was covered. Additionally, Skinner had Wyenandt practice at both forward and guard. He planned on giving Lockyear considerable playing time in the post, and by allowing Wyenandt to switch from frontcourt to backcourt, he could go with a six-man rotation.
Wyenandt would have the task of guarding UNC All-America guard Larry Miller, who shot at a 60-percent clip and averaged over 25 points a game. Sophomore forward Charlie Scott was considered an All-American of the future (he would live up to that billing), while 6-10 center Rusty Clark was an all-ACC pivot. On the bench were future NBA player Bill Bunting and a sophomore point guard who ironically would later become Vanderbilt's coach-- Eddie Fogler.
For once a big game lived up to its billing. North Carolina opened up pressing full-court. In the half-court, Scott shadowed Hagan to keep him from getting the ball, while Wyenandt did the same to Miller. Vanderbilt played a pressure man-to-man defense, and North Carolina committed several turnovers in the first ten minutes. The Tar Heels stayed in the game with hot shooting. Vandy switched on many of the screens on the perimeter and did its best to keep the ball out of the posts.
The lead switched back and forth for the first 12 minutes, with each team leading an equal amount of time and with several ties. The scoring stayed low due to Vandy's cold shooting and the Heels' numerous turnovers. Late in the half Vandy took the lead and once in the one-and-one built the lead at the foul line. The buzzer sounded with Vanderbilt up, 33-26.
Hagan was scoreless in the first half, while Miller had managed only four points; both coaches made adjustments to get their two shooting stars some open shots in the second half. They were successful. In the second half, both Hagan and Miller began sinking baskets. For the Commodores, it wasn't just Hagan who caught fire. Vandy, which shot only 14-of-34 in the first half, hit close to 65% of its shots in the final period. The Commodores maintained a 6- to 8-point lead for about 15 minutes, and then the Tar Heels began fouling Commodores in an attempt to stop the hot shooting. Vandy, which would lead the nation in free throw percentage, hit 25-of-32 from the charity stripe. In the final five minutes of the 89-76 victory, the decibel level at Memorial reached a level I have never heard since, including games against LSU in 1979, Indiana in 1986, and Kentucky in 1993.
The win moved Vandy to No. 3 behind the two giants, UCLA and Houston. The 3-0 Commodores next welcomed Davidson to Nashville; the Wildcats had just mauled Michigan 91-70 and came to town undefeated. The entire roster from the year before returned, and coach Lefty Driesell welcomed the school's best-ever sophomore class. Three of those sophs immediately broke into the starting lineup: 6-6 forward Doug Cook and 6-5 guard Jerry Kroll joined 6-6 forward Mike Malloy, one of the best players in the country. Joining these were center Rodney Knowles and guard Wayne Huckel. Vanderbilt would be a little stronger for this game, as Skinner reinstated Bundy. The junior would quickly see action in the first half.
The Wildcats opened with a flurry of ten-foot jump shots. Once Vandy began to cover the outside shooters, Davidson began pounding the ball inside to Knowles, whose layup put Davidson ahead 12-11. The Wildcats held onto that lead for much of the rest of the game.
Both teams played up-tempo, attempting to pound the ball inside; as a result, the referees' whistles got more action than the Al Hirt's trumpet on Saturday night. It became apparent that both coaches would have to go deeper into their bench than they desired; for Vandy, that meant eight players instead of the usual six. Skinner was quick to insert Bundy, who hit a quick jumper to keep Vandy within five. Davidson led 44-39 at halftime.
Early in the second half, consecutive baskets by Knowles, Malloy, Huckel, and Knowles again put Davidson up by 13 points. Vandy's shooting was off the mark, and the Wildcats were grabbing all the rebounds.
After a timeout and switch to a full-court press, the Commodores began to chip away at the score. Vandy's offensive strength came at the foul line when Davidson fouled to stop the fast break. Wyenandt got the rally going with four straight foul shots. Warren hit a baseline drive to cut it to 58-51. Hagan completed a three-point play to make it 60-54, and Bundy followed with back-to-back baskets to cut the lead to two. The two teams traded baskets with Davidson taking a 68-64 lead, but Vandy had one good run left. Hagan was fouled and sank both shots to cut it to two. Then, Warren produced a deafening roar from the crowd with his pet play, the through-the-lane, under-the-basket reverse underhand layup. With the score tied at 68-68, Driesell called for a timeout.
The game remained close with Vandy taking the lead at 75-74 on a Hagan jumper. With less than a minute to go, Warren fouled out trying to stop a Huckel crib shot; Huckel sank one of the two to tie the game at 75. Vandy played for the final shot, and to no one's surprise the play was set up for Hagan. This time Tommy Gun could not get a good shot away, and regulation ended with the game knotted 75-75.
Two foul shots by Campbell gave Vandy the lead. Davidson responded with a close jumper. Hagan hit from about 15 feet to put Vandy back up 79-77. After an extended possession, the Wildcats tied the game again at 79-79 on a half hook by Knowles. Skinner called for a timeout and instructed his team to run a weave (a type of stall prior to the days of the four-corners) and call another timeout with 0:20 left.
During the second timeout Skinner set up the final play. He didn't think Davidson would be looking for the same play with Hagan shooting as he had in regulation. He was right. Hagan came off a screen and took the ball on the student section-side of the gym, foul line extended, and fired a 16-footer. As the ball was in mid-flight, the clock reached zero and the buzzer went off. All ten players and the two refs waited for what seemed an eternity as the ball came down and hit nothing but net. The Dores won 81-79, and the students rushed the floor to carry Hagan out on their shoulders. Several witnesses to the game no doubt needed a shower before going to bed that night (I felt I had played a good 15 minutes of the game myself).
The big question following the game was whether Vanderbilt would have anything left to take on powerful Duke four days later. Warren had a badly bruised leg and couldn't practice for at least two days, and several players were coming down with something. It would be a few days before the campus realized there was a flu outbreak.
Duke came to town undefeated just like the other North Carolina teams; the Blue Devils were 4-0 with three tough road wins already to their credit. In its ACC opener Duke had pounded Virginia by 42 points. The Devils were an experienced team using seven players regularly, all upperclassmen. Forwards Mike Lewis and Steve Vandenberg both averaged better than 20 points a game. At center was hefty Joe Kennedy, a 6-6 senior whom Coach Skinner had dearly wanted to become Clyde Lee's replacement at Vanderbilt.
As Vandy took the floor for its final practice before the game, the three W's all were ailing. Warren's leg was still tender, and he felt ill as well. Wallace had a jammed thumb on his shooting hand, and Wyenandt was suffering effects from the flu. Campbell had symptoms identical to Wyenandt. Prospects did not look favorable for another big win. By game day Warren was quite ill and still in pain, but he played anyway. Wyenandt and Campbell had fevers; Campbell's was too high to allow him to play. Wallace was given the OK to play with a bandaged thumb.
As it turned out, Campbell was the only Commodore too sick to play. Lockyear started in his place, as Wyenandt started at guard. The move would later become permanent, when Bundy cracked the starting five.
Vandy started this game better than it had the previous two, with Hagan and Wyenandt sharing the hot hand. The Commodores went ahead 10-3 before Duke Coach Vic Bubas instructed his team to get the ball inside to his big men. Duke roared back to take the lead. Lewis, Kennedy, and Vandenberg found the going rather easy against the Vanderbilt front line, and the Blue Devils would lead 44-37 at the half. The Commodores appeared to be suffering from the effects of the previous week.
Things went from bad to worse for Vandy in the second half. Warren, already sick with the flu and nursing an injured leg, went to the floor with a wrist injury. While both teams took turns missing their first few shots, Lewis began picking up some offensive rebounds and tipping them back in. The Devils took a double-digit lead with 13 minutes left. Then, The Gun began firing. Hagan hit from outside; he drove into the lane and fired above the blue trees; then, he stole a pass and hit a layup. In about eight minutes, he scored a dozen points. Vandy went on a 26-15 run that gave them a 70-69 lead with less than two-and-a-half minutes to go.
But in the next minute, the black and gold unexpectedly lost two starters. First Hagan picked up two fouls in ten seconds to foul out. The fifth foul appeared to be a bad call, and about 100 cups, some filled with ice, littered the floor. The officials threatened to call a technical on the crowd, until Coach Skinner took a microphone and pleaded with the students to refrain.
Moments later the already-banged-up Warren fell to the floor once again with a hard blow to his shoulder. Due and Bundy finished out the game for Warren, and Due hit two crucial free throws to put Vandy ahead 74-70 with 1:30 to go.
But Duke would score five straight points to take a 75-74 lead. For its final possession, Vandy would have its two most reliable pressure shooters on the bench. Due brought the ball up the floor and tried to find Bundy or Wallace inside. Bundy came out for the ball, but Lewis was on him like a tight glove. Bundy passed back to Due, as the clock reached 0:05. Due fired across the court to Wyenandt, a good 25 feet away from the basket. With the clock showing 0:02, Wyenandt knew he had to fire; his desperation heave arched high and came straight down through the middle of the hoop. The clock ran out, as the scoreboard added two points to Vandy's side. Final: Vanderbilt 76, Duke 75. Once again, the Memorial Gym floor was swarmed by fans, several of them also sick with the flu.
The win strengthened Vandy's hold on third place in the polls. If not for possibly the two best teams of all time playing in 1967-68, Vandy might have vaulted to No. 1.
In his wildest dreams, no Commodore fan could have predicted the outcome of the last eight days. Vanderbilt had faced three of the toughest teams in the nation back-to-back-to-back, and had slain them all without even having its entire roster healthy and available.
Due to the rash of flu victims, Vandy's 5-0 record was spoiled when the Commodores lost at Florida by two just two nights later. Through its first ten games Vandy went 9-1 and was hovering at No. 4. The team would falter in the SEC part of the schedule, however, as fatigue and additional injuries took their toll. Florida beat the Commodores a second time, and Kentucky swept them as well. Add road losses at Georgia and Tennessee, and it left Vandy at 12-6 in the league and 20-6 overall. The 'Dores got to play spoiler and knocked Ray Mears' Vols out of the championship picture in March.
When fully healthy, this 1967-68 team was likely the most exciting team ever to wear the black and gold. Had the 65-team NCAA tournament been around then, as well as the 3-point shot and shot clock, this group of Commodores would have been a good bet to make the Final Four. They ran the fast break as well as any other; they could shoot outside better than most other teams; they could press a team out of the gym, and even though they were small, they out-rebounded opponents by an average of five per game.
Next: The last second heroics of Barry Goheen and Roger Schurig