As the season opener approached, Skinner still had not decided on his starting five. Lee was a sure thing at center, while Thomas was set at shooting guard. Green had won the vacant power forward spot of Grace's, but he contracted mononucleosis just before the season opener and missed a couple of games. Gibbs eventually edged out Warren for that spot. Southwood won the battle for the point guard spot, and Wyenadt edged out Calvert for the small forward position. Calvert once again became the top sixth man in the SEC and one of the best in the entire nation, as he could fill in at both guards and at small forward.
The SEC media regulars were not undecided who their pick to win the SEC was for the coming year. Vanderbilt, the preseason number five pick in the AP and UPI polls, was the overwhelming choice to repeat as conference champs, with Florida and Tennessee competing for second. Kentucky, coming off Adolph Rupp's worst year ever at 15-10, was picked only fourth, as they had no starter over 6-05.
Coach Skinner usually refused to schedule patsies as part of his non-conference schedule, but this year was a little different. The second game of the season was against Tennessee in Knoxville. In the past, Vandy had played some SEC teams early in December, but many of these games were not counted as conference games. This one was the real deal, and the conference race could be decided right away. Vandy's only conference loss in 1964-65 was to the Vols in Knoxville. Orange coach Ray Mears employed a unique, deliberate 1-3-1 offense and multiple (mostly zone) defenses. So, what did Skinner do to help prepare his team for the early game in Knoxville? He scheduled the Wittenberg Tigers.
Wittenberg was a small college. They weren't just any small college. Ray Mears was the head coach there prior to coming to Tennessee. He went 121-23 there in six years, winning three straight Ohio Athletic Conference titles. His replacement when he moved to Knoxville was Eldon Miller (who would later guide Western Michigan, Ohio State, and Northern Iowa to NCAA tournaments). Miller was a former player and assistant coach under Mears. He kept the same offense and defense as his mentor and had proceeded to go 61-12 in his three years at the tiny Ohio school. One of those seasons, his team yielded only 45 points a game. High School and college coaches read his athletic journal articles, which he titled 45 points a game.
Wittenberg was good, but they were no match for the nation's number five team, even one missing its regular power forward. Big Clyde scored the opening basket of the game on a sweeping hook shot and then decided to set up his teammates for the rest of the night. Thomas had the hot hand in both halves, hitting 11 in each for 22 total to lead all scorers. All five starters hit for double figures, as Vandy quickly ran away and cruised to an 87-59 victory. Lee had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Wyenadt was good for 13, Gibbs scored 12, and Southwood added 10. The starters were a combined 29-52 from the field. Vandy dominated the boards, winning that stat 57-38.
The Commodores were ready for the Vols. Tennessee had lost a close game to defending national runner-up Michigan in Ann Arbor, and had beaten the Quantico Marines. The Vols were led by multi-sport star Ron Widby. The 6-03 broad-shouldered forward excelled at four sports in Knoxville. He hit over .300 for the baseball team, was a star punter for the football team, and a top player on the basketball team. Not satisfied with these three sports, he took up golf, and quickly became a near scratch duffer. Joining Widby in the Vol lineup were 6-09 center Austin "Red" Robbins, 6-06 tough-guy Howard Bayne, shooting guard Larry McIntosh, and point guard Wes Coffman.
Tennessee's multiple defenses and slow, deliberate pace worked to a "T," as all but one Vandy player was stymied the entire night. The stymied Commodores combined for a paltry 9 of 30 shooting. It was the one Commodore who wasn't stymied that doomed the Vols. The All-American Lee was unstoppable against Robbins. Early in the game, Southwood spotted Lee in a one-on-one situation with Robbins near the basket. The junior play-maker fired a bullet to him that resulted in an easy half-hook for a basket. It was the first of 10 assists for Southwood, most of them to Lee. Big Clyde hit 11 of 18 from the field and 6 of 8 at the line for 28 points, as Vandy led the entire way, winning 53-50. The final score was closer than it should have been, as the Commodores missed several late free throws and allowed the Vols to cut a double-digit lead to three at the end.
Besides Lee's great effort, the Vanderbilt defense held the Vols under 40% from the field and forced 15 turnovers in a low-possession game. Wyenadt held Widby to 13 points, while Lee held Robbins to just nine, and Gibbs held Bayne to just five.
At 2-0 and ranked 4th in both polls, Vandy returned home to face North Carolina. Tar Heel head coach Dean Smith had returned his squad to national prominence, as UNC had re-entered the top 20. The Heels would replace rivals Duke and North Carolina State as ACC top banana a year later and make the first of three consecutive Final Four appearances. This Tar Heel squad had just knocked off Ohio State in Columbus and topped Richmond 127-76. North Carolina had upset Vandy in Chapel Hill a year earlier, and this year's edition was much better. The Heels had two 6-03 scoring aces who could light up the scoreboard in Larry Miller and Bob Lewis. Center Bob Bennett was the lone big man in the UNC lineup at 6-08, while John Yokley and Tommy Gauntlett rounded out the lineup.
The Tar Heels slowed Lee in the first half, limiting him to seven points and six boards. UNC, hoping to slow down Vandy's fast breaking offense, opened the game with an aggressive full court press. It didn't work, as the Goldmen beat the press for five quick baskets to open an early 14-4 lead. The two teams played evenly for the next several minutes, before the Tar Heel press began to pay dividends. Vandy committed multiple turnovers, which allowed Carolina to tie the game at 24-24.
Once tied, Smith called for his squad to go to the four corners offense for the rest of the half. The Tar Heels lost their new-found momentum, and baskets by Calvert, Southwood, and Wyenadt gave the Commodores a 34-30 halftime lead. The second half belonged to Lee, Thomas, and Wyenadt, as the Commodores led the rest of the way. North Carolina cut the lead back to four late in the game, before Vandy lengthened the lead to nine and kept it the rest of the way winning 81-72.
As Carolina gambled for the steal late, Vandy kept getting open shots for easy baskets. As a result, the Commodores hit 55% for the game. Lee once again led the way with 22 points and 17 rebounds. Wyenadt scored 21. Green had recovered from his illness and made his first start of the season pulling down nine boards. Thomas contributed 16 points, while Calvert had the hot hand off the bench, finishing with 11. For the Tar Heels, Lewis led all scorers with 33. The rebounding advantage went to Vandy by 13.
Another ACC squad came to Memorial for game number four. Wake Forest was no longer the juggernaut of three years ago, but the Deacons were still quite good. This game had extra drama, as it pitted Keith Thomas against former high school teammate Paul Long. The two standout 6-01 guards both averaged more than 20 points a game at Louisville's Waggener High. Long was actually the higher touted recruit, and Skinner almost landed them both. After spending a year at Virginia Tech, Long transferred to Wake Forest. He came into this tilt scoring 30 points per game.
Once again, it was the Commodore All-American center who was the star of this game. Vandy broke out of the gate quickly and poured balls through the basket with ease; Lee scored on dunks, hook shots, and tip-ins. Just 12 minutes into the contest, the Commodores reached the 40-point mark and led by 21. Skinner substituted a full five players for the remainder of the half. Vandy led 56-36.
The second half was much like the first half. Skinner played the starting five another 12 minutes and the reserves the final eight. When the starters went to the bench, the lead was 89-58. Wake Forest cut the lead to 20 points at the buzzer, as Vandy cruised to a 102-82 victory. Lee ended with 32 points and 20 rebounds in about 25 minutes of play. Every Commodore scored and picked up a rebound in this game. Vandy hit 41 of 86 shots from the field and 20 of 24 free throws. Joining Lee in double figures were Wyenadt with 17, Thomas with 15, and Green with 12. The one-sided rebounding advantage went to the Commodores 63-37. As for Long, he was held to 17 points, 13 below his average.
The Vanderbilt Invitational Tournament came next. Vandy's opening round opponent was the United States Military Academy coached by the youthful, but vociferous Bobby Knight. Army had one big star on their roster in 6-06 post player Mike Silliman. Skinner had tried his best to sign the Louisville native to a grant-in-aid at Vandy, but Silliman chose to serve his country.
Knight's Cadets played a patterned offense, passing the ball up to 10 to 12 times per possession and dribbling only as a last resort. Army played a tough man to man defense, trying to force the ball into the middle of the floor, where defenders could double team. This ploy worked well, as the Cadets stayed in the ball game until the end. Vandy shot below 40%, but they forced Army to shoot even worse. Silliman picked up three quick fouls, and with the lone West Point star on the bench, Vandy gained a 10-point lead.
In the second half, Silliman found his form, and Army cut the lead to two with less than four minutes to go. Vandy gradually pulled away and won 71-63. Southwood led the way for the black and gold with 23 points and pulled down eight rebounds from his point guard position. Lee added 18 points and 15 rebounds and Thomas hit for 14. Silliman scored 17 points for Army.
The win placed Vandy in the VIT finals against undefeated Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers featured All-American nominee Clem Haskins and former Kentucky Wildcat Wayne Chapman (Father of Rex). WKU used a trapping 1-2-2 zone defense and ran the fast break on most rebounds.
The two teams played evenly the entire first half, with Vandy leading 37-36 at the break. The game stayed close in the final period, but WKU led most of the way. With 3 1/2 minutes to go, the Commodores finally regained the lead 70-69 on a jumper by Southwood. Western missed a shot, and Vandy got the ball back. Skinner ordered his squad to hold the ball to pull WKU out of their zone. The Hilltoppers waited over two minutes before fully coming out to play defense and started to foul. Vandy was not in the bonus, and in those days, the offense had the option of shooting one foul shot or taking the ball out of bounds. Since Thomas was fouled, Skinner chose for him to shoot; he hit to give Vandy a 71-69 lead. Western missed again, and Vandy rebounded. Reserve Bob Warren, in the game due to his excellent foul shooting ability, drew a foul. He hit his foul shot to ice the game, and Vandy won 72-69. It was another stellar performance for Lee, who finished with 23 points and 22 rebounds. Wyenadt scored 14, and Thomas added 13. Haskins scored 24 for the Hilltoppers.
UC-Santa Barbara made a 2,000 mile trek to Memorial Gym to face the #4, 6-0 Commodores. The Gauchos had just narrowly missed upsetting Florida State in Tallahassee and were no pushover. For 15 minutes, UCSB held Vandy in check and had the game tied at 24-24. Skinner had sent in four reserves together with Lee to give his other starters a breather, and it was at this point that he ordered the regulars back in the game. They played five minutes of tough defense, switching from man to zone, and Vandy finished the half on an 18-3 run, leading 42-27.
The second half was anti-climatic, as Vandy breezed to a 91-64 win. Lee scored 24 points and pulled down 18 boards, while Thomas added 20. Green recorded a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
The Commodores embarked on a holiday road trip, with the first stop in the Windy City against Northwestern. The Wildcats boasted a tough defense and deliberate offense. Included in their 4-2 record was an 11 point loss in Lexington to the surprisingly undefeated Kentucky Wildcats and wins on the road against Missouri and Texas.
This looked like one of those pre-holiday games where Vandy laid an egg. NU bolted out to a double digit first half lead, before Vandy came back to tie the game at the break. The Wildcats kept it close for the final 20 minutes, but faltered when Skinner switched from a man to a zone defense. It was a late foul shot by Wyenadt that gave Vandy its one-point victory at 59-58. Thomas led the way with 16; Lee had 14 points and 14 rebounds; and Southwood chipped in 13 points.
The Commodores continued their road trip and shared a flight with Northwestern to Los Angeles to play in the prestigious eight-team Los Angeles Classic. Joining Vandy and NU in this tournament were co-hosts UCLA and Southern California, LSU, defending NIT Champs St. John's, Purdue (featuring the NCAA's number one scorer at 35 ppg in Dave Schellhase), and undefeated Syracuse. If all went according to plans, Vanderbilt would face the two-time defending national champion Bruins in the finals.
Vandy's opening round opponent was Syracuse. The 7-0 Orangemen averaged over 100 points per game, led by All-American nominee Dave Bing and Jim Boeheim (the current 'Cuse coach). An added incentive was the release of the new polls. Vandy was now number two in both polls, receiving several first place votes in both the AP and UPI. Duke was number one, even though the Blue Devils had lost a game. Three wins in this tournament would most assuredly boost Vandy to the top spot.
Playing a late game in the opener that was televised back to Nashville, the Lee-Bing match up lived up to its billing. While Bing was hitting from all over the court, en route to a tourney record-setting 46-point performance, Lee matched him in total production with 39 points and 24 rebounds. Lee actually did not score his first points of the game until there was little more than two minutes to go in the first half. Big Clyde scored four quick baskets before the break to forge Vandy into the lead at 49-44. In the final stanza, the other four starters took turns feeding the ball into the paint to Clyde the Camel. He scored 31 more points, as Syracuse had no answer for him. They tried to foul him, but he hit 9 of 11 free throws. The Orangemen finally triple teamed him, and Lee passed to open Commodores, as Vandy breezed to a 113-98 victory. All five Commodore starters hit in double figures with Thomas and Green contributing 19 points each, Wyenadt hitting for 18, and Southwood adding 14.
At 9-0, Vandy moved into the semifinal winners' bracket to face Southern Cal. The Trojans had two future NBA players in their starting lineup in center John Block and guard/forward Paul Westphal. Wyenadt actually held Westphal scoreless, but Block proved to be the equal of Lee. His 32 points and 11 rebounds matched Clyde's 26 points and 14 rebounds. It was Block's final two points that decided the outcome in favor of USC at 74-72. With four seconds left to go in a hard-fought tie game, Wyenadt and Block collided under the basket on a rebound attempt. The call went against Wyenadt, and Block hit both foul shots to win the game. Non-partisan fans thought the officials made a mistake, and Wyenadt should have shot the free throws.
Vandy had to settle for the consolation game against Purdue, while USC advanced to the championship game against UCLA. After a slow start, Lee and Thomas both got hot at the same time. Even with the great Schellhase hitting, it was too much for the Boilermakers. Vandy pulled ahead quickly and cruised to a 94-72 win. Thomas led the way with 30 points, while Lee added 26 points and 12 rebounds. Off the bench, Warren scored 11 points and Gibbs added 10 more. Schellhase scored 24 for Purdue.
Just prior to UCLA disposing of USC rather easily in the championship game, legendary Bruin head coach John Wooden told Coach Skinner that Vandy had the best team in the tournament.
Vandy returned home at 9-1 and still ranked 3rd. The Commodores lost twice to Kentucky and were upset in the season finale against Mississippi State to finish 22-4, falling from 5th to 8th after losing the game to the Bulldogs. Lee repeated as the Coaches' SEC Player of the Year and joined Thomas on the All-SEC first team.
Note: Some Statistics for this story came from the Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, and the Los Angeles Times.
Next: Bob Polk's Last Hurrah
Clyde Lee dunks. (Vanderbilt U. Photo)