Vanderbilt's Lone Win At Bud Walton

1995-96 was supposed to be a turnaround year for the Vanderbilt Men's basketball team. The 1994-95 team had stumbled down the stretch and finished with the school's first losing record in nine years at 14-15. Gone from that team was Ronnie McMahan, who graduated as the school's second leading all-time scorer.

A solid combination of tough, inside players and excellent perimeter shooters promised that this season would be much better.  After Kentucky, the odds-on choice to win the national championship, there wasn't much separating the remaining 11 SEC teams.  Vanderbilt could easily compete for second best in the league and a spot in the NCAA tournament with the roster on hand.
 
The frontcourt featured returning senior forward/center Malik Evans.  Fellow bruiser Billy DiSpaltro manned the other post position.  Reserve big man Austin Bates had improved by leaps and bounds and was almost ready to start and star in the SEC.  Hatchet man Gianni Cugini could spell either Evans or DiSpaltro.
 
The backcourt showcased a combination of players who could penetrate to the basket and hit the long-range jumper.  Howard Pride could split defenders off the dribble and locate the open man underneath.  Pax Whitehead had emerged as a sparkplug, who could enter the game and score 10 points in five minutes.  When he was hot, which usually happened once he entered the same zip code of the gym, Frank Seckar could can three-pointers as quickly as any other SEC guard.  Drew Maddux could do a little of both.
 
The schedule was one of the toughest Vanderbilt has had to face.  The Commodores would have to play three of 1995's Final Four.  Early in the season, Vandy knocked off defending national champion UCLA 75-71 in the Maui Invitational.  This came two days after taking North Carolina to the wire in the opening game. 
 
The injury bug became quite the bugaboo early in the season.  Pride went down early with a broken leg and would be lost for the season.  Still, Vandy recovered with Whitehead taking Pride's place in the lineup.  After reeling off six consecutive impressive wins, Vandy ventured to Houston to take on Rice.  Early in the game, Evans injured a bone in his foot.  He was lost for six games, and the Commodores struggled losing three of them.  Evans returned just in time to fuel an inspiring 65-55 victory over Tennessee, but he re-aggravated his injury in the next practice.  He couldn't contribute in the next game, and the Gold Men lost at home to LSU, falling to 1-2 in the league and 10-5 overall.
 
Evans' availability for the Arkansas game would be a last-minute decision.  This game was virtually a must-win game for the Commodores to remain in contention for an NCAA tournament bid.  Evans would start the game and play 30 minutes, albeit not at 100%.
 
When Evans was out hurt, Seckar suffered as well.  He relied on the defense sending more than one player down low to keep Evans from scoring easy baskets.  When that happened, he usually found himself open from behind the arc.  With Evans out, Seckar was forced to shoot with a defender in his face, and his accuracy had declined.  To put it bluntly, he was mired in the worst shooting slump of his Vanderbilt career.
 
Arkansas came into this game missing several key players from the previous two seasons.  In 1994, the Razorbacks won the national title, and in 1995, they lost the championship game to UCLA.  Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman had decide to forgo their final year, while Clint McDaniel, Corey Beck, Dwight Stewart, Al Dillard, and Davor Rimac departed as seniors.  Still, this Hog cage team was stocked full of talent, even if it was a little green. 
 
None of the five starters in Coach Nolan Richardson's razorback lineup averaged double figure points.  Guards Ali Thompson, Marlon Towns and Pat Bradley combined for less than 20 points per game, while post players Lee Wilson and Derek Hood struggled to combine for 10 points per game.  The three leading Arkansas scorers came from the bench.  Forwards Jesse Pate and Sunday Adebayo and guard Kareem Reid combined for more than 40 points per game.  This system had worked for Richardson's rebuilding Razorbacks.  Arkansas was tied for first in the SEC West and sported an overall mark of 9-4.  What's more, The Hogs were 38-3 in their relatively new Bud Walton Arena home.
 
Even with a young team, Arkansas still ran the fast break and pressed full court the entire game.  They led the league in turnovers forced and in steals.  Many of these thefts resulted in easy baskets off transition.  When Arkansas went on one of their patented runs, most opponents were shot out of the gym.  In Vanderbilt's previous three trips to Arkansas, they had lost by an average of 96-72.  On top of the pressure Vanderbilt expected to face in this game, Sports South had chosen to televise the game in primetime throughout the South.
 
In pre-game warm-ups, Commodore assistant coach Buzz Peterson paid close attention to Frank Seckar.  He noticed that Seckar hit every single one of his pre-game warm-up shots, including nearly two dozen three-point shots.  Peterson turned to Commodore head coach Jan Van Breda Kolff and said that Seckar would come out of his shooting slump that night.  He would be prophetic.
 
Neither team could score on their first possessions.  Wilson hit a close in shot one minute into the game to give Arkansas a 2-0 lead.  That would be the last lead they would enjoy.  Following an aggressive press, Drew Maddux drove passed Towns and drew a foul in the act of shooting.  He connected on both to knot the score at 2-2.  30 seconds later, Maddux canned a long three-pointer to give the Commodores a 5-2 lead.  Less than 30 seconds later, Whitehead hit a short runner, and the Commodore lead was five.
 
Following a pair of made free throws by Wilson, Seckar got his chance to prove Peterson's prediction.  After breaking the press, Seckar received the pass on the right side free throw extended.  He hit the three-pointer to put Vandy up 10-4.  Following a dead ball and TV timeout, Whitehead penetrated the Razorback defense and popped a short jumper to give Vandy an eight point lead.  That lead would stay between six and eight points for most of the remaining time in the opening half.  Just prior to halftime, Seckar hit another three-pointer to put Vandy up by double digits.  A late run of points by Adebayo closed the gap to 41-32 at the end of the half.
 
Vanderbilt led by nine points thanks to a hot shooting hand by Seckar and Whitehead, who both had reached double figures in the first 20 minutes.  Arkansas had forced over 15 turnovers in the half and had stolen the ball 10 times.  They couldn't cash in on enough transition baskets, and when they missed, they almost always took only one shot.  Vanderbilt had controlled the defensive glass.
 
The second half started with Malik Evans getting his first good look inside.  He was fouled in the act of shooting and hit one of two to give the Commodores a 10-point lead once again.  Arkansas then hit a short-lived hot streak and cut the lead to four at 42-38.  A couple of Commodore turnovers against the press had allowed Arkansas to get a couple of easy baskets.
 
Following another TV timeout, Vandy went about increasing the lead.  Bates hit one free throw, and then following a Razorback bucket, Whitehead sank consecutive jumpers to push the lead to seven.  After Thompson hit a pair of charity tosses, Seckar spotted Maddux breaking down the floor and threw over the press to his teammate.  Maddux spotted up from 20 feet and swished one through the hoops to drive the lead up to eight points.  After a steal by Whitehead, DiSpaltro was bumped hard under the basket while trying to shoot.  His two free throws gave Vandy a double digit lead once more.  Maddux and Seckar continued their accurate outside shooting, while DiSpaltro kept hitting free throws.  After Seckar sank another trey to make the score 64-52, Arkansas turned up the heat in their defense with but 8:40 to go in the game.
 
Vanderbilt repeatedly turned the ball over for three minutes, never threatening to score, while Arkansas's Williams, Adebayo, and Reid hit baskets to cut the lead in half.  Whitehead finally broke the scoring slump with one free throw to make the score 65-58, and then Bates hit an open crip to make it 67-58.  90 seconds later, Evans hit his only basket of the night to give Vandy a 71-61 lead with less than three minutes to go.
 
The Razorbacks made one final push.  Towns scored, and then Reid followed up with a pair of free throws.  After Whitehead hit two free tosses, Pate hit a three-pointer and Vanderbilt turned the ball over for the 31st time of the game.  When Towns hit two free throws following the fast break after the Commodore turnover, the lead had evaporated to just two points at 73-71 and with 90 seconds to go.
 
Vanderbilt successfully broke the press in the final minute and change.  Arkansas was forced to foul.  Maddux hit two, DiSpaltro followed with two, and then Maddux hit two more to ice the game.  Bradley made an uncontested lay-up with nine seconds to go, and then Seckar was fouled on the inbound pass.  He hit the first and missed the second to make the final score 80-73.
 
Seckar's made free throw at the end gave him 20 points for the night, while dishing out a game high six assists.  Whitehead scored 18 points, but more importantly picked off seven Arkansas passes and added five rebounds.  Thanks to 10 made charity tosses, DiSpaltro finished with 16 points and added seven boards.  Maddux made it four Commodores in double figures with 14.  He also contributed greatly on the boards with six rebounds.  While Evans was clearly not 100%, he managed to lead all players with eight rebounds.
 
Once again, the only double figure scorers for Arkansas were the three key reserves.  Adebayo (18), Reid (16), and Pate (11) combined for 45 of the Razorbacks' points.
 
Despite turning the ball over a school record 31 times, Vanderbilt won the game by hitting most of the open shots that came about after they broke the press.  The Commodores hit 53.5% of their field goals and 46.2% of their three-point tries.  Arkansas committed 28 fouls, and Vanderbilt capitalized by sinking 28 of 37 foul shot attempts.
 
Vanderbilt dominated the glass in this game, winning that statistic 36-24.  Arkansas stole the ball 17 times, but Vanderbilt lessened the damage by stealing the ball 13 times.  Whitehead's seven steals was the best effort in the conference that year.
 
The win moved Vandy into a tie for second in the SEC East with South Carolina.  The Commodores continued to play more than credible ball through the end of January.  Entering February, Vandy's record was 14-7 and 4-4 in the SEC.  The bright spot in February was pegging a 69-64 loss on Mississippi State.  It would be the Bulldogs last loss until Syracuse edges them in the semifinals of the Final Four. 
 
Vanderbilt entered the SEC Tournament square on the NCAA bubble with a record of 17-12.  In what seems to have become a continuing nightmare to this day, the Commodores met an underdog Auburn Tiger team in the opening round of the tournament.  In the regular season, Vanderbilt knocked the Tigers around for a 76-62 win.  Auburn exacted their revenge with a 68-65 upset.  The black and gold had to settle for the NIT, beating Coach Wimp Sanderson's Arkansas-Little Rock team before losing to Eddie Fogler's South Carolina team to finish 18-14.  With most of the team returning in 1997, the Commodores finally got over the hurdle and made it back to the Big Dance.
 
Saturday, January 14, 2006
 
Fresh off an emotional win at Rupp Arena, can the Commodores avoid the bounce effect and continue their winning ways?  It won't be easy, but if they play with the same emotion as Tuesday night, they should have a fair chance of making a game of it.
 
Arkansas has several exploitable holes from the two times I have seen them this year.  First, they had no idea how to handle a zone defense in one of the games I saw.  Their three-point shooting looked atrocious against it, and they were too impatient to pass the ball around the perimeter and find the holes in the zone.  If Vanderbilt uses their match-up zone for this game, it will be interesting to see if Arkansas has learned anything since the pre-conference schedule.
 
The Razorbacks also appear vulnerable to the inside-to-outside pass, showing a slow recovery time.  If the Commodores can work the ball into the post and then spot the open perimeter player, an average shooting day from behind the arc could be enough to propel Vanderbilt over the top. 
 
You can bet that Arkansas will do everything in their power to stop Shan Foster.  If you can remember last year at Memorial, Mario Moore kept feeding him for open shots, and Foster came away with his first 20-point game when he tossed in 25 big points.  Moore also hit for 20 to go with his career high 13 assists.
 
The Computer Soothsayer
 
The computer rankings have yet to give Vanderbilt the respect that a 2-0 SEC start and win at Rupp Arena deserves.  The Commodores are picked to split their final seven games and finish 9-7/18-9 prior to the SEC Tournament.
 
Ole Miss hasn't received much respect from the computers with their 2-0 SEC start.  Florida has actually moved into a tie with Duke at 100, which is the highest a team can be ranked in this weighted average.
 
Here is how the teams stack up prior to Saturday's games:
 
SEC East
Florida                       100
Tennessee                   94
Vanderbilt                   91
Kentucky                     89
South Carolina           88
Georgia                       86
 
SEC West
L S U                             93
Arkansas                     90
Alabama                      88
Ole Miss                       85
Auburn                        85
Mississippi State        84
 
Computer Predictions
 
Arkansas 68  Vanderbilt 66
Ole Miss 75  Mississippi State 70
Kentucky 55  Alabama 51
South Carolina 67  Georgia 61
Florida 94  Auburn 74
L S U 77  Tennessee 74
 
 
Note: Some information and statistics came from the Nashville Banner and Nashville Tennessean.  Special thanks go to Andre Foushee and Katy Hamlett at  Vanderbilt Media Relations for going above and beyond the call of duty in helping me get the proper information for this story.

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