This was not the most successful time in Vanderbilt basketball history. From 1963-64 to midway through the 1968-69 season, Vandy's record was the second best in the NCAA at 117-28. Since opening 11-3 in 1968-69, the Commodores went into a funk that lasted two-thirds through the 1971-72 season. The record in the last 83 games had been 39-44.
Nineteen games into the 1971-72 season, the Commodores record stood at 4-7 in the SEC and 10-9 overall. The road record had been 2-7. So far the average points per game had been 83.8 to 84.9 surrendered. This was a young team with only one senior playing. Tom Arnholt was all that remained from what was called the nation's number one recruiting class four years prior.
A fine class of juniors and sophomores meant Vanderbilt would only get better next season. The contributing juniors were 6-08 forward Rod Freeman, who looked more like a defensive end for the Green Bay Packers and Ray Maddux, a 6-08 center from Stratford High School in Nashville. The sophomore class was one of Vandy's finest ever. Four out of the five players in this group were guard/forwards, two of them 6-07 all-tool players. The tall guards were Jan van Breda Kolff (right) and Lee Fowler. Zone busters 6-04 Terry Compton and 6-03 Bill Ligon (left) joined the lone pivot in this class, 6-08 center Bob Chess.
The Commodores lost three conference games in a row and five out of their last six games heading into mid-February. Coming up was a road game at Gator Alley against Florida. Vandy had lost four of their last five times they played in Gainesville; the Florida Gymnasium was only a minor improvement over Auburn‘s old gym (see last week‘s article).
Coach Skinner decided to change his starting lineup for this game. The new starting give were Maddux at center, Freeman and Fowler at forward, and Compton and Arnholt at guard. Out of the starting lineup were Ligon and VBK, but these seven players were now being called the "seven regulars," "super seven," and "magnificent seven." Each member of this swishing septet would see about 25-30 minutes of playing time.
Florida had one huge star in Tony Miller, who was leading the SEC with a 26-point average. The Gators relied on the 1-2-1-1 zone press to disrupt offenses and produce fast break points. Coach Skinner instructed his players to beat the press by running the fast break past it before the Gators could set it up.
Florida's press failed to stop Vandy even once in the opening ten minutes of the game. Gator Coach Tommy Bartlett called it off for the rest of the evening. The first half was a rough and tumble exhibition with fouls being called almost every minute. There was no flow to the game as the teams spent much of the half shooting foul shots. Both teams shot around 40% from the field, and the spread never ventured past five points either way. At the break, Vandy took a 38-36 lead. The Commodores' two leading scorers to this point in the year, Compton and Ligon, had only seven points between them. Freeman took up the slack by hitting for 15 points including 5 of 5 at the charity stripe.
The first 12 minutes of the second half were a continuation of the first half. Then, with the score tied at 64-64, Skinner inserted VBK in at the point with Ligon, Freeman, Fowler, and Compton. He instructed his tall point guard to find the rebounder, get open for the outlet pass, and run the fast break. On Florida's first possession afterwards, Gator guard Jerry Hoover fired and missed. Freeman grabbed the board and found the open VBK. Jan took the pass near mid-court and dribbled to the top of the key with Compton and Fowler streaking down opposite sides of the court. VBK looked at Compton to draw the two Gator defenders his way, then threw a blind pass right into the hands of Fowler. The Columbia High School grad calmly finished the fast break with an uncontested lay-up to give Vandy the lead at 66-64.
The basket awoke the black and gold. Over the next six minutes, Florida either missed or turned the ball over, while Vandy repeated the fast break exercise again and again with Compton scoring most of the points. The Gators hit two baskets, while Vandy reeled off 17 more points to take a commanding 83-68 lead. The Goldmen cruised to a 90-74 victory.
Leading the way in scoring for the Commodores was Compton with 26 points, 21 of which came in the final half and 15 of which came in the mad rush to the finish. Freeman added nine second half points to total 24 for the game. Fowler tossed in 15, while Ligon added 11. Three Commodores, Freeman, Maddux, and Fowler, hauled in 10 rebounds apiece. The real star was VBK, who dished out a career-high 11 assists, many of those coming after the score was knotted at 64. As usual in the Skinner era, the decisive statistic was at the foul line. Vandy connected on 30 of 37 free throws to just 16 of 26 for the Gators. Many of those trips to the line came as a result of beating the Gators down the floor before their half-court defense could set up. Florida's players grabbed gold jerseys as a last gasp effort to prevent an easy basket.
Vandy returned to Memorial Gym to start a three-game home-stand. First up was a vastly improved Ole Miss Rebel squad on its way to its first winning season in years. Mississippi coach Cob Jarvis had recruited a couple of muscle men in 7-foot Fred Cox and 6-06 wide-body Coolidge Ball. Guards Tom Jordan and Dave Rhodes were the primary perimeter force. Rhodes from Perry County High School in nearby Linden, Tennessee, would later return to that school as head basketball coach. He tutored his younger brother Mike, who went on to become one of the top players in Vanderbilt history.
In the earlier meeting in Oxford, Vandy found itself losing to the Rebels in a manner similar to many of its football teams; the Commodores were out-muscled, beaten, and bruised, as the Johnny Rebs blew the Commodores off the floor 92-65. The game was stopped in the second half when a free-for-all broke out. Bill Ligon was ejected from the game along with Rebel Danny Gunn.
Coach Skinner adjusted his starting lineup again as VBK replaced Arnholt after the excellent output in Gainesville. The tall point guard didn't start the game on the same high note he ended the previous one. That's because the Commodores couldn't find the bucket early. Ole Miss , behind Cox and Rhodes, sprinted to an early lead. A couple of inside baskets by Freeman and Fowler cut into the lead. Trailing 16-12, the Commodores stepped up their defensive pressure. For the next six minutes, the Rebels scored only three free throws, while Vandy ripped off 15 points. The run coincided with the entry of Bill Ligon into the game. He immediately began firing from 20 feet and his aim was true. The lead swelled to 10 points, before Rod Freeman was forced to the bench with his third foul. This allowed Ole Miss to cut the lead to six at the break, Vandy ahead 41-35.
Compton, who scored only five points in the first half, joined Ligon in the second half with an early hot hand. The two outside gunners aligned on opposite sides of the perimeter and repeatedly hit long-range bombs. The lead went from six to 13 at 56-43. Ole Miss wasn't about to fold. The Rebels defense toughened, while Rhodes found his range and sank multiple mid-range jumpers. Soon, the lead was cut to four points. It stayed between four and six until the Rebs' two big inside men both picked up their fourth fouls. Two charity tosses by VBK, followed by a lay-up by Fowler, and the lead was eight.
Down the stretch, Vandy held onto the lead by hitting numerous foul shots and hung on to win 89-83. Four players hit for double digits, led by Ligon, who came off the bench to score 25 points and pull down eight rebounds. His hot streak sent Vandy on its decisive spurt. Compton scored 21 points and also pulled down eight rebounds. Fowler scored 17 and added nine rebounds. Freeman added 13 points and eight rebounds. Maddux led all players with 13 boards, while VBK had another double figure assist game with 10. Rhodes scored 20 for Ole Miss, while Ball was held scoreless in the second half, as Fowler's defense forced Ball to take ill-advised shots. The win was extra special, for it was Coach Skinner's 200th victory at Vanderbilt.
Next up on the schedule was LSU. The Tigers were led by two inside powers left over from the Pete Maravich days. Center Al "Apple" Sanders stood 6-06 and weighed a beefy 245 pounds. Bill "Fig" Newton had the ability to score points in bunches.
This was Tiger coach Press Maravich's final season in Baton Rouge. His legendary son Pete was now a second-year player with the Atlanta Hawks, and LSU had begun to slip. The Tigers were weak on the defensive perimeter. Coach Skinner once again altered his starting five, inserting Ligon for Maddux and moving Freeman from forward to center.
You would have thought Charles Dickens wrote the script for this game and penned it "The Tale of Two Halves." In half number one, Bill Ligon continued his blistering hot shooting streak and scored 20 points quickly. Nobody else could hit with any consistency. The Tigers rode the hot hand of Newton and, to the surprise of everyone, seldom used guard Jeff Taylor. LSU took the lead before the end of the first half and went to the locker up 47 to 43.
The Commodores began the second half an entirely different squad. They quickly caught the Tigers and gained the lead. Ligon kept hitting, but now Compton found the range as well. Freeman began to accumulate rebounds until getting in foul trouble. Maddux subbed for him and continued to control the boards for the Commodores. When either Ligon or Compton needed a breather, Arnholt came in, and Vandy's offense didn't miss a beat.
Vanderbilt raced to a double digit lead with 10 minutes to go and didn't let up. The lead quickly jumped from 10 to 20 points. Coach Skinner finally emptied the bench and played the five players who saw little action. That quintet included Bob Chess, Doug Bates, Haworth Parks, Jr., John Cattelino, and Alex Thompson. Cattelino scored only one basket, but it was the big one. His runner lit the third digit on the scoreboard, as Vandy ran up 61 second half points, winning 104-83.
The two hot outside shooters accounted for 58 points. Ligon scored a career high 31 points and pulled down a career high 15 rebounds. Compton added 27 points. Arnholt, subbing for the two hot hands, added 14 himself. Maddux added 11 rebounds. For LSU, Newton tossed in 26, while Taylor hit for 24. Sanders scored only 15 points.
Now sporting an impressive three-game winning streak, Vandy next met Alabama. The Crimson Tide had begun to turn the corner under head coach C.M. Newton. They came to Nashville very much alive in the conference championship race sporting an 8-3 SEC mark, one game in the loss column behind Kentucky and Tennessee, both of which still had to play the Tide in Tuscaloosa.
The star of this Crimson team was forward Wendell Hudson. He could do everything well except shoot foul shots, a theme that haunted Alabama. Center Alan House showed flashes of greatness. Guard Ray Odums could break open a game with his defense and his offense.
For a change, Coach Skinner started the same five who started the LSU game. This game looked very much like the previous games in the winning streak. From the start, Ligon fired from 20 to 22 feet out and kept the Commodores in the game while his teammates were cold. Alabama's inside muscle game sent the Tide out to a quick lead. That spread bulged to seven points at 18-11, when Coach Skinner sent Maddux into the game for added muscle and Arnholt to help Ligon with some outside shooting. The insertion of the two players immediately paid dividends. Maddux got two inside baskets and Arnholt hit a long one, as Vandy quickly pulled into a tie at 19-19. The remainder of the first half was a nip and tuck affair. Vandy took a one point halftime lead at 44-43, when Maddux tipped in a basket at the buzzer.
The familiar second half offensive explosion hit quickly for the black and gold. Before Alabama knew what hit them, Compton, Fowler, and Ligon shot them into submission. In just 10 minutes, Vandy scored 35 points to Alabama's 12. It started with a great defensive effort with terrific rebounding. Then, Vandy ran the fast break to perfection. When Alabama scored and tried to run their full court press, Vandy broke it for easy baskets. Nothing Coach Newton tried slowed down the Commodore blitzkrieg.
Once again, Coach Skinner emptied the bench, and Vandy rode out a 111-91 victory, putting a huge dent in the Tide's title hopes (actually this loss was all that would eventually keep Alabama from finishing in a three-way tie with Tennessee and Kentucky). Although he went to the bench with 10 minutes remaining in the game, Ligon once again led Vandy with 28 points. Joining him in double figures were four other Commodores. Fowler and Maddux each recorded double doubles with Fowler finishing with 19 points and 12 rebounds and Maddux recording 15 points and 13 rebounds. Compton's usual one half barrage netted him 18 points, while Freeman added 10.
The 61-point second half surge in the second half against LSU was quickly topped, as Vandy scored 67 points in the second half of this game. The most glaring statistic was the foul shooting difference. Vandy hit 31 of 38 for 81.6%, while 'Bama hit only 13 of 22 for 59.1%.
The four game winning streak guaranteed a winning season for Vandy, as the record now stood at 14-9. As the team prepared to hit the road against Auburn, word spread that the NIT was showing an interest in Vandy if they could win out. Auburn presented a height problem for the Commodores. Starting center Al Leaphart was 6-10. Power forward Jim Retseck was a strong and fast 6-07 banger. Key backup Ernie Magri stood an even seven feet tall. Coach Skinner readied his team for yet another all-out fast break blitz to combat the height disadvantage. Speed would kill the Tigers.
By now, stopping Bill Ligon was the number one objective of opposition coaches. Auburn had two defenders shadowing him early. As a result, Compton didn't wait until the second half to take over the offense. He kept Vanderbilt form being wiped out in the first 11 minutes, as Auburn took a 29-20 lead. At this point, Coach Skinner inserted Maddux and Arnholt into the game. The move paid off, as the Commodores went on a mini-run to pull back within a couple of points. As the first half clock hit zero, Auburn led 47-44.
Maddux and Arnholt continued to stay on the floor at the start of the second half, along with Fowler, Compton, and VBK. The Tigers, relying on inside plays, opened the second half on a 12-4 run to take an 11 point lead. Coach Skinner sent Freeman in for VBK to add some muscle, and the move paid off quickly. Auburn stopped scoring, and Vandy's fast break kicked into gear; Compton and Arnholt did most of the damage. Less than three minutes later, Vandy had cut the 11-point deficit to a single marker. Less than a minute later, the score was tied at 67-67 and nine minutes showed on the clock.
Coach Skinner then sent Ligon back into the game, and then VBK a few possessions later. The Commodores took the lead for good at 74-72 on a jumper by Arnholt and went up by four on a Ligon basket one possession later. For the rest of the game, The Commodores retained the lead by hitting both ends of several one and one foul shot attempts. Auburn could never get the ball with a chance to tie, and Vandy held on for a 93-87 victory.
Compton added 17 second half points to end with a game high 28. Ligon managed 15 points on limited shooting opportunities. Reserves Arnholt and Maddux each popped in 14 points, while Freeman contributed an even dozen. Vandy hit 29 of 36 at the foul line to go with brilliant 54% shooting from the field. The win moved the Commodores' record to 15-9 on the season and 9-7 in the SEC.
Unfortunately, a quirk in the SEC scheduling in 1972 left Vandy with eight days off until their next game. During this five-game winning streak, Vanderbilt had averaged 97.4 points per game, and the average margin of victory was 13.8. Two games remained. First up was a visit to Knoxville to take on SEC co-leader Tennessee, and then came the finale against Mississippi State to be played at home.
Many basketball experts believed this was Tennessee Coach Ray Mears' best starting five, even better than the 1967 conference champs. Center Len Kosmalski was more agile and mobile than Tom Boerwinkle. Perimeter stars Mike Edwards and John Snow were as good as Ron Widby and Bill Justus. Vandy caught the Vols on a night that Coach Mears said was possibly the best performance he had ever seen one of his teams produce. The Vols took the lead early and cruised to an 87-74 victory. Ligon led four Commodore double-figure scorers with 16, but Kosmalski and Snow combined for 55 points and 28 rebounds. The loss effectively knocked Vandy out of NIT contention with one game to go.
Mississippi State came to town sporting a 13-12 record and needing a win to finish with a winning ledger. The Bulldogs had beaten Vandy by seven points in Starkville. MSU had two competent guards in Jack Bouldin and Taki Koroneos. Up front, Terry Kusnierz was a monster. He had pulled down 24 rebounds against Vandy in the prior meeting.
Coach Skinner tried a new lineup for the final game. The lone senior Arnholt joined the four fabulous sophomores of VBK, Ligon, Fowler, and Compton. This in effect was a five guard lineup. It wasn't difficult to figure out what the Commodores planned to do; they wanted to take Kusnierz out of the game by running circles around him. The plan worked perfectly.
This game had two memorable pre-game happenings. Several thousand Commodore fans showed up with transistor radios and earplugs. Some of these fans shunned black and/or gold and showed up dressed in royal blue. Why? 13-4 Kentucky was in Knoxville playing 14-3 Tennessee for the conference championship. The winner would get the NCAA tournament bid. This was Adolph Rupp's final regular season game as a coach, and he had several thousand fans sitting in another gym 185 miles to his west. The other oddity was a technical foul assessed against VBK in pre-game warm-ups for dunking the ball.
MSU took a 1-0 lead on a Bouldin free throw with no time expired. They scored a quick basket on the game's first possession to go up 3-0. That in a nutshell was the only time during the game where the Bulldogs had the upper hand. Vandy quickly stormed back and took a 4-3 lead, never trailing afterwards. The fast break's deadly quick scoring potential took State's bigger players out of the game. Vandy grabbed a 10-point lead and kept it from there on. In gaining a 49-39 halftime advantage, the four sophomores took turns setting up the one senior. Arnholt topped his average 11.5 average before the first half ended.
A funny incident occurred just before the first half ended. Ligon fired a routine jumper from 18 feet out and swished it. About a second after the initial applause, a deafening roar erupted from the 15,000+ faithful. Over in Knoxville, Tennessee's Mike Edwards went to the foul line with five seconds left and Kentucky leading 67-66. After Coach Rupp took two time outs to try to freeze Edwards, the All-SEC guard missed both shots. Kentucky center Jim Andrews rebounded the second miss, and five seconds later the Wildcats were SEC champs. As the clock hit zero in Knoxville, the Memorial Gymnasium fans roared. Poor Ligon had no idea why his routine basket sounded like it was a last-second buzzer beater.
In the second half, Commodore fans witnessed more of the same. Vandy controlled the boards and ran the fast break with Arnholt getting most of the shooting opportunities. Vandy appeared headed for a 30-point victory, until Coach Skinner took out his starters and let his five seldom-used players finish the game. Doug Bates hit the basket that lit up the third digit for the sixth time of the season, as Vandy won 104-82.
The best part of the game came when Arnholt was relieved with four minutes to go. A long standing ovation followed. The Columbus, Indiana, native closed out his Commodore career with a varsity career high of 34 points (He had a bigger game as a member of the freshman squad, which will be part of next week's story). Joining him in double figures were Freeman with 19, VBK with 13, Ligon with 12, and Compton with 10. VBK narrowly missed a triple double as he pulled down 11 rebounds and just missed getting 10 assists. Vandy connected on better than 55% from the field and hit an incredible 24 of 27 from the foul line. The Commodores set team records for scoring average and free throws made. The 77% free throw accuracy just missed setting another record. The final mark of 10-8 in the SEC was good enough for fourth. The 16-10 overall mark was the best since the 1967-68 team finished 20-6.
The future looked bright. Six of the seven key contributors returned in 1972-73. Coach Skinner had three high school All-Americans ready to sign scholarships at Vanderbilt. Jeff Fosnes, Joe Ford, and Butch Feher would join the Compton, VBK, Ligon, and Fowler for two seasons, while seniors-to-be Maddux and Freeman joined 7-04 Steve Turner and 6-07 Chris Schweer for 1973. Two other high school All-Americans almost signed to play with this group. Alvan Adams signed with Oklahoma and became an All-American, while leading the Sooners to a Big Eight Title. Phil Bond decided late to stay home and play at Louisville; as the starting point guard, he guided the Cardinals to the Final Four in 1975. You have to believe that with Bond and Adams, Vanderbilt would have contended for a berth in the Final Four in 1973 (The Mideast Regionals were at Memorial Gym, and Vandy would have only needed one extra win to get there), and in 1974, they could have very well gone 30-0 and taken all the marbles.
Note: Some statistics and other information came from the Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, and Vanderbilt University.
Next Week: Vandy's six battles against Pistol Pete.