The Game Of The Decade

From 1963 to 1976, Vanderbilt's basketball program was a consistent national power, finishing in at least one top 20 poll seven different years. There were several key wins in the 1960's and several more in the 1970's. However, one game stands alone as the most important game of the 1970's. February 4, 1974, saw the Gold Men head to Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a clash of two top ten teams (Vandy #5 and ‘Bama #7).

The Commodores and Crimson Tide entered this game with identical 8-1 records in the Southeastern Conference.  Vanderbilt, 16-1 overall, had narrowly escaped with a 73-72 win over Alabama, 15-2 overall, at the start of the conference schedule in a game played at Memorial Gym.  The Commodores trailed in the second half of that game by seven points before a devastating zone press forced Alabama to commit numerous turnovers, ending the game with 25.  Since then, Coach C. M. Newton's pachyderms had won nine games in a row, most of them by lopsided margins.
 
Alabama in the 1970's held the biggest home court advantage in the SEC.  Coming into this game, the Tide had won 34 out of its last 35 home games, and they would continue to dominate at home for the next three seasons, losing only three of its next 36 home games.  This game against Vandy had already produced the earliest ever sell out of 15,043-seat Memorial Coliseum.  All but about 250 fans would be cheering for the Tide.
 
Vanderbilt entered this Monday night match coming off consecutive impressive road wins the previous two Mondays, when they had beaten both Kentucky and Tennessee by identical 82-65 scores.  Assistant Coach Ron Bargatze believed that if the black and gold gave up just 65 points to Alabama, the Commodores had a chance to pull off the upset; Alabama entered the game as a seven-point favorite.
 
The Commodores were not at full strength.  6-03 starting forward Butch Feher had been suffering with tonsillitis and had been left behind when the team bus took off from Nashville.  Feher would join the team just before game time and start in his weakened condition.  Joining Feher in the starting lineup were: 6-06 Jeff Fosnes at the other forward, 6-08 Jan Van Breda Kolff at center, and 6-04 Terry Compton and 6-02 Joe Ford at guard.  6-03 guard/forward Bill Ligon, 6-07 guard/forward/center Lee Fowler, and 6-08 center Bob Chess were the only reserves seeing significant action.
 
Alabama started a bigger, more physical five.  The hub of their offense revolved around 6-10 center Leon Douglas.  6-06 Charles Russell played taller than his height at forward.  6-05 guard/forward T.R. Dunn was one of the most complete players in the country, able to do everything except foul shooting quite competently.  6-02 point guard Ray Odums was one of the quickest players to the hoop off the dribble.  Rounding out the starting five was leading scorer Charles Cleveland, who at 6-05 could play anywhere on the floor.  He could post up players a few inches taller and shoot the jumper even when heavily guarded by smaller guards.  6-06 forward Rickey Brown was the sixth man on a team that rarely went more than six deep.
 
Vanderbilt scored first on a basket by Van Breda Kolff.  That was their only lead for the next 39 minutes.  Alabama forced the ball inside, where the Tide made several close-in baskets.  Alabama made 13 shots inside of five feet from the hoop to go with only one outside basket in the first 20 minutes.  If not for several missed three and four-foot shots by Douglas, the game might have been over before halftime.  VBK couldn't handle the bigger Douglas and picked up three fouls in the first five minutes of the game.  The Vandy captain spent the remainder of the half on the bench.  Feher went to the bench for good four minutes into the game; he was too ill to play.
 
With VBK in foul trouble and Feher unable to play, Ligon and Fowler were forced to come in and play the rest of the half.  The two former starters kept the Commodores in the game.  Ligon hit three outside bombs that would count for three points today and stole some rebounds away from the bigger Alabama frontcourt men, while Fowler hit one long range shot and two close in bank shots to keep the deficit under double digits.  The first half horn sounded with Alabama holding only a 31-26 lead.
 
Vanderbilt was still in the game because their defense had held the Crimson Tide to 33.3% shooting on 14 of 42 attempts.  The Commodores didn't set the woods on fire in the half, hitting only 11 of 30 for 36.7%.  With VBK starting the second half with three fouls, Coach Skinner decided to change his defense from man-to-man to zone.  To date, the Commodores had played little zone in 1973-74, and when they began the second half in a 3-2 alignment, Alabama wasn't sure how to attack it.  The Tide held the ball for almost one full minute trying to find an opening.  Ligon, Compton, and Ford cut off any dribble penetration, while Fosnes and VBK kept the ball away from the low post.  An errant Tide shot was rebounded by Fosnes, who passed to Ford.  Ford drove to the side and hit the streaking VBK with a pass.  Jan the Man took a step and laid the ball in the basket to cut the lead to three. 
 
Alabama took their time against the Commodore zone and eventually solved its riddle.  Douglas sprung free and hit consecutive baskets, while Russell and Cleveland hit long range jumpers to push the lead back to seven points at 43-36.  At this point, Fowler re-entered the game and was assigned to stop Douglas, allowing VBK to take the smaller Russell. 
 
The move proved to be the decisive coaching decision of the game.  Douglas would not score another basket inside the low post block until the final seconds, when he would do so with no defensive interaction.  His only other open shots the rest of the game would be jumpers from the free throw line.  In fact, in the final 14 minutes of the game only one basket by Russell and one by Cleveland (plus the last one by Douglas) would be all Alabama could muster inside.
 
VBK found his touch and began to take over on the offensive end.  With Fowler in the game and playing low, the senior center set up in the high post and hit three quick jumpers. Add a lay-up by Ford and a jumper by Fosnes, and the Commodores went on a 10-6 run to cut the Tide lead to 49-46.
 
Alabama stopped the bleeding and outscored Vandy 8-4 over the next two and a half minutes.  The Tide went back up by seven points once again at the 6:21 mark when Odums scored his 1,000th career point.
 
Vanderbilt began driving into the lane to force the issue at this point.  Alabama had been slowly getting itself into foul trouble in the second half.  Lee Fowler had been responsible for drawing many charging fouls.  With just under six minutes left to play, Compton drove by Russell and headed to the basket.  Russell grabbed him and picked up his fourth foul.  Compton hit both of his one and one attempts to cut the lead to 57-52.  After an Alabama miss, Fowler tipped in a missed jumper to make it 57-54.  Douglas responded with one of his two jumpers to put the Tide back up by five, and Skinner called time out with four and a half minutes to go. 
 
The plan was to get Compton the ball and force the action against Russell.  It worked, and Russell picked up his fifth foul.  The chink in the Crimson armor would cause an entire crumbling in the last four minutes.  Compton hit both charity tosses to make the score 59-56.  With Douglas double-teamed inside and Russell out of the game, Alabama was forced to shoot from outside.  The Tide players were not the best outside shooting bunch in the league, and Cleveland rushed one that missed.  VBK took the ball on the right side and swished a 20-footer to cut the lead to one with three minutes to go. 
 
At this point, Charles Cleveland almost ended the Commodores' hopes.  Following a miss by Douglas, he tipped it back in while Fowler was on his back.  Cleveland hit the foul shot to give the Tide a 62-58 lead with 2:50 to go.  Following a turnover, Odums drove the lane and was fouled by Ford.  He hit the front end of the one and one to put Alabama up 63-58 with two minutes left to play.  Coach Skinner called another timeout. 
 
The biggest attribute with the 1974 team was its never-give-up mind-set.  They had faced this same adversity several times already and had pulled out the victory all but one time.  They weren't about to quit now when they were two minutes away from putting themselves in the driver's seat for the conference championship.
 
Compton continued to drive one-on-one.  This time, Brown tried to stop the move and picked up another foul.  The gunner from Horse Cave, Kentucky, hit both ends of the one and one, and the score was 63-60.  Fowler drew yet another charge (this time on Brown), and the ball belonged to the Commodores.  After passing the ball around the horn, Fosnes caught the ball and attempted to put a move on Brown.  The crafty freshman was caught off guard and had to grab Fosnes to prevent an easy crip shot.  It was his fifth foul, and it forced seldom-used Johnny Dill to enter the game.  Fosnes hit a pair of free tosses, and the margin was back to one at 63-62 with 90 seconds to go.
 
Alabama took a timeout, and then when play resumed, they went to a stall.  With less than 40 seconds to go, Compton seized the opportunity and made the play of the game.  After watching Dunn hold the ball high over his head prior to passing the ball to the side, he timed the repetitive move just right.  Dunn brought the ball up high and began to turn to the side to make a pass.  Compton smacked the ball and jarred it loose.  He picked it up and began to drive to the basket.  Odums chased  him down and was forced to foul.  Compton wasn't about to miss in this situation.  Two made tosses later, Vandy led for the first time since 2-0.  The clock showed just 35 seconds to go. 
 
Odums tried to put the Tide back in the lead, but he rushed an ill-advised shot.  Fowler grabbed the rebound and was fouled immediately by Douglas.  Coach Newton called time to try to ice Fowler, and it worked.  His missed foul shot gave Alabama the ball with 25 seconds left.  The ball went to the top of the key to Dunn.  Dunn split the seam between Ford and Compton and drove toward the basket unimpeded.  At this last moment, Fowler slid over and got in front of Dunn as he released the ball.  The shot missed, and Dunn flattened Fowler, picking up the offensive loose ball foul.  This time, Fowler sank both shots and Vandy led 66-63 with just eight seconds to go. 
 
Coach Skinner instructed his team not to foul and let Alabama drive the lane if they wanted.  Compton harassed Odums enough to force four seconds off the clock. Odums finally located Douglas for a made crip shot.  That cut the lead to 66-65 with three seconds to go, but the Tide was out of time outs.  In those days, the clock did not stop after made baskets in the final minute of the game.  Alabama had to take a sixth timeout to stop the clock with two ticks to go.  Calling a sixth timeout was allowed, but it resulted in a technical foul.
 
Compton missed the technical shot to give Alabama hope.  On the inbounds pass, Douglas intentionally fouled Fosnes.  Fosnes missed the first shot; the game was still not over.  Fosnes hit the second one to make the score 67-65. One little second remained.  Dill somehow completed a 93 foot pass to Dunn, but it was underneath the backboard.  Dunn could not move to get a shot away before the horn sounded.  Vandy won!  The 67-65 upset put the Commodores one game ahead, but for all practical purposes gave them a two-game cushion.  With two wins over ‘Bama, Vandy would get the lone bid to the NCAA Tournament if they finished tied with the Tide.
 
The second half produced completely different results.  Vanderbilt hit 13 of 25 shots for 52% and more importantly went 15 of 20 at the foul line.  Alabama hit 15 of 35 shots for 42.9% and only 4 of 6 at the charity stripe. 
 
Douglas ended the game with 18 points and seven rebounds, but he connected on only 8 of 20 field goal attempts.  Russell added 16, and Cleveland scored 13.  Dunn was held to four points on 2 of 9 shooting, but he picked up nine rebounds.
 
Four Commodores hit for double figures in a balanced offensive.  Compton, with several late free throws, led with 14.  Fosnes tallied 13 along with 11 rebounds, while Fowler and VBK scored 12 apiece. 
 
Vanderbilt and Alabama continued to beat up the rest of the league.  At 21-1, the Commodores moved to number four in the polls behind UCLA, North Carolina State, and Notre Dame.  Ray Mears brought a psyched up Tennessee Volunteer team into Memorial Gym and played his old deliberate pace, while his zone defense acted like a sedative to the Commodores.  The Vols upset Vandy 59-53 to drop the Commodores into a tie for first.  As Vanderbilt trailed Kentucky in the second half, word came from Gainesville that Florida had upset Alabama.  The Commodores rallied to win and clinch the NCAA berth.  In the season finale, Florida pulled another upset over the Commodores, and both Vandy and Alabama finished tied for first at 15-3.  The win in Tuscaloosa was definitely the most important game of the decade.
 

Vanderbilt at Alabama Wednesday, February 8, 2006

 
Vanderbilt failed to win a must-win game on Saturday.  Certainly, the team is mathematically still in the race for a winning SEC record, but the Commodores must pick up two road wins and run the slate at home, or pick up three road wins and win all but one of the remaining home games.
 
It isn't impossible, but if they lose this one Wednesday night, at 3-6, they probably aren't going to recover in the regular season.  This makes tomorrow night's game almost as important as the one I just told you about.  Alabama has a huge burst of momentum after Saturday's win over LSU.  When a team picks up a big win at home and continues to play at home, they almost always play as well or even better than the prior big win.  A crimson bird told me that the Alabama players have been looking at this game with revenge on their minds.  Alabama's difficulty against Vanderbilt has been similar to the Commodores' difficulty with South Carolina.  Could the Gold Men have the Crimson's number?
 
Alabama will force the ball inside on offense and try to prevent inside penetration on defense.  They will give up an occasional open three-pointer just to keep the ball out of the paint.  The Tide has made more free throws than their opponents have attempted, while in conference play, the exact opposite holds true for the Commodores.
 
So, how do you beat a team like this on their home floor?  You beat them to the punch.  You have to be the one that dictates the action and score on them before they can organize their defense.  You have to gamble in the passing zones and try to pick off passes.  Once you get the steals, you have to score in transition and draw fouls.  Just five such baskets and/or pairs of foul shots off steals will win this game—I am almost 100% sure of that, especially if two or three of these occur in the first 10 minutes of the game.  I don't think this edition of Crimson has what it takes to withstand such an onslaught.
 
Vandy should sag their defense a little and invite ‘Bama's perimeter players to shoot open jumpers from a tad outside of their normal range.  Vandy should give Alabama's outside shooters the open 22-foot shot without contesting it.  Sag back to the three-point line and prevent dribble penetration or passes inside.
 
This game can be won, but I don't give them much chance if possessions are limited.  The Commodores cannot be perfect enough times with a passive, fringe offense and their normal man-to-man defense.  They would have to shoot at least 55% from the floor and take at least an equal amount of foul shots to beat Alabama this way or force the Tide into shooting less than 40%, while winning the battle of the boards. 
 
One more thing:  Mario Moore is still vital to this team.  He must be given a little leeway to allow the old Mo to return.  The team need's its former best weapon to have a coming out party if they are to make a run in the second half.  If he ends up in the doghouse, the season could end up smelling like dog poop.  Let bygones be bygones and start the second half of the conference schedule anew.  All families have their spats, but in the end they love each other and rally together when times get tough. 

As The Computers Turn

 
Ugh!  The binary magicians say Vanderbilt's next win will come next November.  That's right; the consensus of the ratings is that the Commodores will lose all of their remaining games and finish 3-13/12-16.  I think it's safe to say this won't happen, but Vanderbilt's composite computer ranking places them far enough down in the standings that their home court advantage won't overcome the higher ratings of the heavyweights left to be played at Memorial; the home court advantages of Georgia, South Carolina, and Ole Miss place their ratings above the black and gold.  If Vandy were to finish in 6th place, their most likely first round opponent would be Arkansas.  The Razorbacks would be favored even with Vandy getting a two or three points for playing in Nashville. 
 
The margin between third best and ninth best SEC school may be as little as three to five points, so Vanderbilt could just as easily run the table if they discover how to fix what's broken.  A six-point ratings improvement is all that's needed to finish 6-2 or better according to the composite computer ratings.
 
On the other hand, the news looks good for Tennessee, Florida, LSU, and Kentucky.  They look like locks for the four definite bids the NCAA will issue to the SEC.  Alabama and Arkansas lead in the race for a possible fifth spot, but Georgia is moving up quickly.  My personal opinion is that only four teams will get bids, unless someone else wins the conference tournament.  The team with the biggest chance of pulling that off will be the runner up in the SEC West.
 
Tuesday
 
Tennessee   82        Kentucky             81 (UT favored by only 0.14)
 
Wednesday
 
Florida           77        South Carolina        62
L S U        74        Arkansas               67
Auburn      75        Ole Miss                74
Alabama    70        Vanderbilt              62
 
Note: Some information and statistics came from the Nashville Banner and Nashville Tennessean.
 
Special thanks goes to the Vanderbilt Sports Media Department, namely Andre Foushee,  Allison Bush, and Katy Hamlett.  The entire staff  is an A+, top notch organization with the most helpful and cordial people I have ever seen in any athletics department.
 

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