Vanderbilt Upsets Neal Walk

For those of you going to Gainesville to watch Vanderbilt take on the Florida Gators Saturday, arrive on campus a few minutes earlier than you planned. Take a glance at the building on the opposite side of the Gators' football field from the O'Connell Center. That little building, less than half the size of Florida's current basketball venue, is Florida Gym. Once known to all as "Alligator Alley," this 5,600-seat sweatbox was death to opposing teams.


In a three-decade period in which Florida enjoyed very few successful seasons, the Gators managed to win 70% of their games on this cozy home court. 
 
For a brief time in the late 1960's, Florida fielded some of the best teams in the SEC.  Norm Sloan built the program into a force in the league and then left Tommy Bartlett in charge in 1966.  Bartlett's first team, the 1966-67 squad, posted the school's best ever winning percentage, finishing 21-4 and leading the nation with a better than 17 per game rebounding margin.  Some sportswriters referred to the orange and blue as a redwood forest.  Starting center Neal Walk was 6-11.  Forwards Gary Keller and Gary McElroy were 6-10 and 6-08 respectively.  Shooting guard David Miller was also 6-08.  Sixth man Jeff Ramsey was 7-00.
 
Between December of 1964 and January of 1969, Florida won 41 out of 48 games on their tiny home floor.  In 1969, Walk, now an All-American senior center scoring 24 points and pulling down 18 rebounds per game, joined 6-05 power forward Andy Owens, small forward Boyd Welsch, shooting guard Ed Luckco, and point guard Mike Leatherwood in another impressive lineup.  The Gators were still out-rebounding opponents by more than 10 per game, while holding opponents to a field goal accuracy below 40%.  Thus far, Florida had won two of its first three conference games.
 
In 1969, Vanderbilt was having defensive problems.  Losing excellent defenders Bo Wyenadt, Bob Warren, Gene Lockyear, and Kenny Campbell had caused Coach Roy Skinner to change his defensive philosophy.  A pressure man-to-man defense was no longer feasible. 
 
The Commodores sported a 7-3 record coming into this game, but in each of the three losses, Vandy had surrendered 100 or more points.  The most frequent loss had been a couple nights earlier to Georgia in Athens 104-80, Skinner's second worst loss ever.
 
Skinner decided to alter his starting lineup for this game.  Forward Perry Wallace and guard Rudy Thacker would start the game on the bench, while sophomores Van Oliver and Ralph Mayes would make their first starts.  Joining them in the starting five would be center Bob Bundy, forward Thorpe Weber, and guard Tom Hagan.
 
The Gators used a 1-3-1 half-court zone trap defense.  With aggressive guards in Luckco and Leatherwood along with sixth Mike McGinnis, opponents frequently turned the ball over or forced bad shots.  With Walk and Owens dominating inside, very few teams could beat the trap for an easy basket, and when an opponent's shot missed, the chances for an offensive put-back were close to zero.
 
To combat the inside force of Walk and Owens, Skinner ordered his troops to play a 1-2-2 zone.  A heroic effort would be needed by Bundy, Oliver, Weber, and Wallace on the back line to keep the two giant opponents from dominating inside.
 
Offensively, Skinner decided to attack Florida's trapping defense with a 3-2 offense.  The goal was to work the ball around the horn trying to locate a cutter coming from the baseline to force a one-on-one situation with the back man of the 1-3-1 zone (the smaller Welsch).  This tactic had been quite successful against Tennessee the year before in Nashville, so the returning players were confident it could work against the Gators.  Hagan, Mayes, and Oliver would spread out on the perimeter and try to locate Bundy and Weber inside.  Wallace would sub down low, while Thacker would sub out on the perimeter.
 
From the onset of the game, it was apparent that both teams' defenses would dominate this game.  The Commodores couldn't solve the Gators' trap, while Florida couldn't get the ball inside to Walk and Owens.  Vandy committed 15 turnovers and shot just 33.3% in the opening 20 minutes; the turnovers led to Florida taking 40 shots to 33 for Vanderbilt.  The Gators couldn't capitalize on the extra seven shots, hitting just 11 for 27.5%.  At the end of the half, Florida led 29-27.  On the boards, Bundy, Wallace, and Weber were magnificent, matching Walk, Owens, and Welsch board for board.
 
Walk opened the second half with a bucket to give Florida a 31-27 lead; Vanderbilt caught fire for a brief stretch and took the lead.  Baskets by Wallace, Bundy, and Thacker put the Commodores on top 33-31.  After a Gator miss, the Gold Men ran the fast break with Weber getting an uncontested lay-up to make it 35-31.  Thacker followed that with a short jumper to put Vandy up by six.
 
The Commodores kept the lead between four and seven points for the next 10 minutes.   When Hagan hit consecutive baskets with less than six minutes to go, the score stood at 53-46.  After trading baskets and then a two-minute lull in scoring, Vandy led 55-48, when Weber was fouled in the act of shooting. He canned both to give the Commodores their largest lead at nine points with just 2:38 to go in the game.
 
Florida made one last valiant effort to catch up, and it worked.  Welsch, Walk, and Lukco made consecutive baskets, and a free throw cut the lead to 57-55.  After a Commodore miss, the Gators had a chance to tie in the final minute.  Walk was fouled trying to drive, and he went to the line for one-an-one.  He missed!  Bundy grabbed the rebound and was fouled.  Even though the Commodores were not in the bonus, Skinner chose for Big Bob to take the single free throw (prior to 1972, teams had the option of taking one foul shot or getting the ball out of bounds on the first six personal fouls of each half).
 
Bundy hit the free toss to give Vandy a little breathing room at 58-55 with 45 seconds left.  Florida couldn't find a decent shot against the Commodore zone and forced a bad jumper; the ball was tipped out to Hagan who found Bundy on a breakaway.  He was fouled trying to take the crip, and he calmly converted on both tries to make the score 60-55 with under 20 seconds to go.  Florida missed again, and Bundy pulled down another rebound.  He spotted Wallace breaking down the floor and hit him with a perfect pass.  Wallace laid it in the basket to close out the scoring.  Final Score: Vanderbilt 62 Florida 55.
 
Only five players scored for the Commodores, but four of them hit for double figures.  Wallace led the way with 17 points and 14 rebounds.  He entered the game early for Oliver and played most of the minutes at that forward spot.  Hagan finished well below his 23-point average with 16 points.  Weber tossed in 15 points and contributed nine rebounds, while Bundy added 12 points to go with 14 rebounds.  Thacker added the other four points.
 
Walk scored seven fewer points than the pace he had set coming into the game.  His 17 points represented Florida's lone double figure mark.  He dominated on the boards with 21 rebounds.  Owens was held to just nine points and nine rebounds.
 
For the game, Vanderbilt hit 23 of 62 shots for just 37.1%, but held the Gators to 22 of 75 for 29.3%.  At the charity stripe, Vandy connected on 16 of 22 for 72.7%, while Florida missed on several opportunities, sinking only 11 of 21 for 53.4%.  The Gators finally inched ahead on the boards, but only won that battle 51-47.
 
The win moved Vanderbilt into third place in the SEC, while Florida dropped to fifth.  It would be the Gators only home loss of the season, as they finished third in the league behind Kentucky and Tennessee.  1969 was the year SEC teams were finally allowed to accept NIT bids after a long embargo.  At 18-8, the Gators joined the Volunteers as one of the 16 teams at Madison Square Garden.  Walk topped 20 in both scoring and rebounding, but Florida fell to Temple in the opening round.
 
Vanderbilt improved to 4-1/10-3 at the halfway point of the 1969 season and appeared ready to make a run at Kentucky and Tennessee for the conference crown.  The Commodores lost five consecutive games for the first time in Skinner's tenure and swooned to a 9-9/15-11 finish.
 
Other Notable Wins At Alligator Alley
 
1956
 
Al Rochelle set a new Vanderbilt scoring mark when he torched the Gators for 37 points and fueled a comeback from 12 points down in the second half for an 80-75 win.  The triumph improved Vanderbilt's record to 11-2/19-3 and kept alive the third-ranked (INS Poll) Commodores' hopes of facing Kentucky in a playoff for a berth in the NCAA Tournament (Alabama would go 14-0 in the league but refuse a bid to the NCAA's because all five starters would be ineligible to play due to a rule not allowing fourth year players to participate).
 
1964
 
John Ed Miller broke out of a shooting slump with a 27-point effort, Clyde Lee added 19 points, and Florida native Ron Green came off the bench to record a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds, as Vanderbilt won 91-78.  Vanderbilt quickly built an insurmountable lead and maintained it for the duration to improve to 18-5 on the season.
 
1966
 
Keith Thomas came out of a sickbed to make the Gators ill.  The senior guard tallied 30 points on 11-18 shooting and a perfect eight for eight at the foul line.  The 89-86 win was the only home loss for the Gators in Norm Sloan's last season in his first Florida coaching term.  Clyde Lee added 18, Bo Wyenadt scored 13, and Jerry Southwood and Ron Green each pumped in 10 points.  The win improved Vanderbilt's record to 19-3.
 
Saturday's Vanderbilt-Florida Game
 
So you think Vanderbilt continues to find itself in more perils than Pauline?  Florida returns to Gainesville for their first home game since dropping consecutive road tilts in the league.  The Gators start four sophomores and a junior, and youth was definitely not served in Knoxville and Columbia.  Back at the friendly confines of O'Connell, don't expect the adolescent reptiles to fold.  Vanderbilt faces its toughest task of the season trying to slay a hungry bunch of Gators.  On the other hand, some experts might tell you it is better to catch a tough team in this situation when they may be starting to doubt their abilities.
 
How can the Commodores put themselves into position to be in the game in the final five minutes?  It will take a few things for it to happen.
 
1. At least one player will have to step up with a career game.  Someone will have to have the hot hand in the paint, and at least one player must have the hot outside shooting hand for both halves.  My best guess here is that Julian Terrell will have to top his Mississippi State performance from the 2004 SEC Tournament.
 
2. Vanderbilt must greatly limit Florida's transition opportunities, never allowing the Gators to get a run going.  Just one 10-0 streak will doom the black and gold to failure in this game.
 
3. Vanderbilt must force the issue defensively.  Even if the Commodores turn the ball over only 12 times, unless they force 16-20 turnovers and pick up 7-10 steals, they won't be able to convert on enough easy baskets to pull off the upset.  Most road upsets come about because the road team scores points with their defense.
 
4. Vanderbilt needs to draw enough fouls to attempt 22 or more foul shots.  They must connect on at least 72.7% (16 of 22) and then stay out of foul trouble.  If just one key Commodore picks up two early fouls, it could be curtains before halftime.
 
5. My crystal ball reveals that the best way to win at Florida is to keep the game close for 32-35 minutes, make one quick spurt to take the lead in the final five minutes, and then hold on for the victory.  It is nearly impossible to lead for 20-30 minutes and withstand all the pressure assaults the Gators will make when trailing.
 

The Computer Ratings
 
SEC East
 
Florida                97
Tennessee              95
Vanderbilt             90
Kentucky               89
South Carolina         89
Georgia                85
 
SEC West
 
L S U                  97
Arkansas               91
Alabama                86
Ole Miss               84
Auburn                 82
Mississippi State      81
 
A look at a few other conferences
(90 rating or better/Worthy of At-large NCAA Consideration)
 
ACC
 
Duke                  103
Boston Coll.           94
North Carolina St.     93
Florida St.            92
Maryland               91
North Carolina         90
 
Big East
 
Villanova              99
Connecticut            98
Pittsburgh             96
Georgetown             94
West Virginia          94
Syracuse               92
Cincinnati             92
Louisville             91
 
Big 10
 
Illinois               96
Ohio State             95
Michigan State         93
Wisconsin              92
Michigan               92
Indiana                92
Iowa                   91
 
Big 12
 
Texas                 100
Colorado               94
Kansas                 94
Oklahoma               90
 
Pac-10
 
Washington             93
Arizona                92
U C L A                91
 
Missouri Valley
Northern Iowa          94
Wichita State          91
Creighton              90
Bradley                90
Southern Illinois      90
 
Best of the Rest
 
Memphis                99
Gonzaga                94
Xavier                 93
G. Washington          93
Air Force              91
Ala.-Birmingham        91
George Mason           91
Bucknell               90
 
This Weekend's Predicted Scores
 
Auburn                 78
Georgia                77

Alabama                77
Mississippi State      68

L S U                  76
Ole Miss               67

Tennessee              86
South Carolina         75

Florida                74
Vanderbilt             62
 
Sunday
Kentucky               74
Arkansas               70
 
Note: some info and stats for this story came from the Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, and the University of Florida Athletics Department. Photos courtesy of the University of Florida.

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