David Slays Goliath

6-11 Neal Walk, 6-10 Gary Keller, 6-08 Gary McElroy, 6-08 David Miller, and 6-01 Skip Higley were the tallest ever collegiate basketball starting lineup prior to 1970. Sixth man Jeff Ramsey added to the timber at an even seven feet. Seventh and eighth men Boyd Welsch and Mike Rollyson were muscular forwards (Welsch also played guard) who could have played center for most other teams. This octet of Florida Gators was often times called "The Redwood Forest."

Bartlett brought an undefeated Gator team to Nashville to face Vanderbilt in the Commodores' conference opener of the 1966-67 season.  Florida came into this game already owning three impressive road wins, including a defeat of Louie Dampier's and Pat Riley's Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington.  This squad of Goliaths had outscored its opponents by an average of 85.3 to 63 to this point in the season. 
 
Entering the Vanderbilt game, Keller averaged 22.5 points per game.  Three other starters averaged double figures, while the sophomore Walk just missed qualifying with a 9.5 point average.
 
Vanderbilt was not supposed to compete for an upper division SEC berth in 1966-67.  With the graduations of Clyde Lee, Keith Thomas, Ron Green, and Wayne Calvert, it was expected that Commodore coach Roy Skinner would be lucky to win half of the schedules games.  At 6-1, the Gold Men had begun the season by upsetting Western Kentucky in Bowling Green.  The Hilltoppers would post a 23-2  record in the regular season and finish 6th in the AP Poll.  Vandy added a decisive 89-76 victory over an SMU team that would advance to the Elite Eight and extend a Houston team, led by Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney, to the final minutes of the Midwest Regional championship.
 
In contrast to Florida, Vanderbilt's tallest starter, 6-06 center Kenny Gibbs, was two inches smaller than Florida's starting shooting guard.  Joining Gibbs in the lineup were 6-04 forward Bob Warren, 6-03 forward Bo Wyenadt, 6-04 guard Tom Hagan, and 6-01 guard Jerry Southwood.  This team rarely went more than seven deep, with 6-00 guard Kenny Campbell and 6-06 forward Gene Lockyear coming off the bench.
 
At this point of the season, Wyenadt led Vanderbilt with a 19.7 scoring average, followed by Hagan at 17.1 per game.  Four other Commodores entered this game with double figure averages: Warren at 16.3, Southwood at 12.9, Campbell at 11.9, and Gibbs at 10.0.  As a team, Vandy came into this game averaging 91.6 points per game to 78.7 for their opponents.  This group of Commodores was consistently shooting over 50% from the field (about 10 of these made shots coming from what would count as three-pointers today) and 75% at the foul line.
 
As of late, Warren had begun to make himself known as a prime force underneath.  In the prior game against LaSalle, Vandy won 100-95 in the Vanderbilt Invitational Tournament title game. Warren tossed in 33 points on 10 of 12 from the field and 13 of 14 from the charity stripe.  Warren's patented move, which brought the Memorial Gymnasium faithful to a frenzy, was to drive hard to the right side of the basket, feign shooting a lay-up forcing his defender to jump, and continuing under the basket for an underhanded reverse lay-up.  Hundreds of younger basketball players, me included, overnight began using "The Bob Warren" in their shot repertoire.
 
Bartlett learned the 1-3-1 trapping zone under the master of that defense, Ray Mears.  His Gators employed the same attack, and with all the height in the lineup, opposing players felt like they were walking through a September corn maze in Iowa, hopelessly trying to locate the basket.
 
Skinner liked to use multiple defenses to keep opponents off guard.  For this game, he would employ only a 1-2-2 zone defense to stop ball penetration.  Once the Gators passed the ball in the paint to Keller, Walk, or Ramsey, there wouldn't be much the smaller Commodores could do to stop a basket.  Not one desiring to slow the pace of the action down, Skinner also planned to exploit Florida's lack of ball handling acumen by extending the zone into a half-court press.
 
Florida was not prepared to face the zone press.  In the opening five minutes of the game, the Gators committed five turnovers and failed to score a point.  It took them almost three minutes just to attempt their first field goal.  By that time, Vanderbilt led 7-0.  Miller finally hit a jumper from the foul line to put the Gators on the board, but a 20-foot jumper by Hagan and a three-point play by Warren on one of his underhanded lay-ups and a made foul shot pushed the lead to 12-2.
 
A few minutes later, Hagan received a hard blow to his face, dislodging one of his contact lenses.  After a search on the floor, Gibbs finally found it, but it had been cracked.  Hagan retired to the bench for the remaining 13 minutes of the half, having scored four points on two field goal attempts.
 
Campbell replaced Hagan, and the Commodores continued to hold the upper hand.  The lead swelled to 11 at 29-18. Welsch came off the Florida bench and joined Miller by firing a barrage of long jumpers, hitting one after the other.  Vanderbilt threw the ball away three times in five possessions, and the Gators stormed back into the game, cutting the lead to just three at the break at 35-32.
 
Hagan returned in the second half, and like he had done previously in three other games in December, he took over the offense.  Borrowing a contact lens from a Vanderbilt football student manager, Hagan connected on four quick jumpers from the baseline corner, all off brilliant feeds from Southwood, to push Vanderbilt up 47-37.  Once Florida began extending their zone to curtail Tommy Gun's open looks, he began firing passes inside to Warren.  Warren responded with another underneath-the-basket lay-up and added a foul shot to make it two three-point plays on the night.
 
Higley, Miller, and Welsch kept Florida from being blown out of the game with several mid-range and long jump shots, but the Commodore 1-2-2 zone kept the ball out of the middle.  Except for one Walk hook shot, Florida's big men couldn't get an open look at the basket.  Neither Keller, nor McElroy made a field goal the entire night.  When Higley or Miller tried to pass the ball inside, it was either batted away or stolen.
 
Vanderbilt maintained the lead the rest of the evening winning 77-69.  Once again, the shooting percentage was above .500.  Thanks to a 15 of 23 second half effort in which Hagan hit on 7 of 10, Vandy finished the night at 54.7% from the field.  The Commodores were also deadly at the foul line, connecting on 19 of 25 for 76%.  Florida was nearly as hot, connecting on 31 of 59 shots for 52.5%.  The Gators hit only 7 of 13 foul shots.
 
The battle of the boards was much closer than expected, as Florida only won it 37-33.  Vandy's trapping out front and fortress in the paint allowed them to pick up 11 steals.
 
Hagan's 16 second half points gave him 20 for the game to go with seven rebounds.  Warren added 18 points, while Wyenadt scored 15 and Gibbs contributed 11 with seven rebounds.  Southwood dished out 11 assists.
 
Miller led Florida with 23 points, Higley tossed in 18, and Welsch added 13. Walk scored nine points on 4 of 7 shooting; three of his baskets came from more than 10 feet out. Florida's remaining big men (Keller, McElroy, Ramsey, and Rollyson) combined for just six points on 1 of 10 shooting.  That single basket was a tip-in by Ramsey.
 
Florida would proceed to win their next seven games, moving to as high as number eight in the Associated Press poll.  The Gators dropped consecutive games to eventual SEC champion Tennessee and lost at fourth place Auburn, finishing 14-4/21-4; no Florida team to this day has topped this club's .840 winning percentage.  Additionally, no SEC team has approached the 17.1 rebounding margin set by the behemoths of 1967.
 
Vanderbilt also lost at Auburn, but the Commodores upset Tennessee in Memorial Gym.  After winning seven games in a row, Vandy stood at 8-1 in the conference and 15-2 overall, ranked ninth in the AP poll.  A trip to Gainesville for the sweep against Florida was too much to ask for, as the black and gold lost 83-75 in a televised game.  Two close conference wins set up the game of the year in Knoxville, but the Vols played their best defensive game of the season and clobbered Vandy 70-53.  Tennessee lost at Alabama, allowing Vandy to move back into a first place by a half game.  The Commodores couldn't take advantage of Tennessee's loss and lost at Mississippi State 74-71.  Vandy slaughtered Kentucky and beat LSU to finish 14-4/21-5.  Tennessee had to play one more game.  The 14-3/20-5 Orange had to finish the season against those same maroon Bulldogs in Starkville.  If Mississippi State won, Vandy, Florida, and Tennessee would finish in a three-way tie, forcing a playoff. 
 
The Bulldogs appeared to have the upset in hand, before Ron Widby took over the game for the Big Orange.  He hit several key baskets to force overtime, and then he took over as the teams played three extra periods.  Tennessee won 78-76 to take the title.
 
Notes: The 1967 season was the fourth year Vanderbilt went undefeated at Memorial Gym.  After winning all 14 home games, Vanderbilt's career record at Memorial at the close of 1967 was 181-25 (88%) and an incredible 87-7 over the previous seven years.  The Commodores have enjoyed only one undefeated season at home since, that being the 1993 SEC champions.
 
Some stats and information for this story came from the Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, Vanderbilt Sport Media, The University of Florida Sports Information Department (special thanks to Dawn—I hope the weather is better when you make your way to Nashville in March), and The University of Tennessee Media Guide.
 
Back to the Present
 
For 38 minutes Saturday afternoon, it looked like 1993 or 1974 all over again.  Was that Bruce Elder or Butch Feher out there wearing number 22?  Was Billy McCaffrey or Jeff Fosnes raining threes from inside that number 32 jersey?  Was that Roy Skinner or Eddie Fogler directing the up-tempo offense from the bench in those beaten up sneakers?  All five starters scored in double figures and Dan Cage narrowly missed with eight points.  With this type of balanced scoring, opponents will be hard pressed to double up on any one person.
 
Kentucky couldn't handle the Commodores' transition game.  The Gold Men looked about as sharp as they are capable of looking.  Until Kentucky turned up the pressure and forced a lot of mistakes, it looked like the Commodores might even top 90 points.  If Florida has to devote more than one player defensively to stop DeMarre Carroll, Vanderbilt will not only win another big game, they will win by double digits.
 
Not having Mario Moore in the final two minutes of the game hurt the perimeter play when the pressure was increased.  Can you imagine what Gator coach Billy Donovan might be thinking today?  He remembers the bevy of turnovers his team forced on the Commodores in Gainesville when Moore was on the bench.  By now, either he or one of his assistants has seen how hard the going was for Gordon, Byars, and Cage against Kentucky's pressure.  Can Florida press Vanderbilt out of Memorial Gym?  I don't think so, but I do think they can cause enough turnovers to tilt the game in their favor.
 
When Vandy played the 2-3 zone Saturday, they actually fared quite well on the defensive glass.  Florida has a decided advantage inside, but Carroll, Terrell, Byars, and Foster have the ability to keep the rebounding battle close.
 
So, how can Vanderbilt win this game?  The short answer is come out wearing garnet and black uniforms that read "South Carolina."  I think the Gators' most vulnerable player among their starting five is Taurean Green.  He tends to make mistakes when the game speeds up to a helter-skelter pace.  Against Tennessee and South Carolina, he committed too many turnovers when the tempo increased.  He also gave up some open shots outside.  On offense, the more shots he takes, the fewer shots will be available to Joakim Noah and Al Horford.  If the two big men take 20 combined shots in this game, the Gators will win tomorrow.
 
Vanderbilt needs to continue with their newfound ball and player movement.  For the 30 minutes that either the starting five or any four starters plus Cage were in the game, there was very little stagnation when the Gold Men had the ball.  Even if the Commodores limit possessions some tomorrow night, they need to do so by continually moving and making sharp passes.  Vanderbilt can win this game if they put out the same effort they did against Kentucky and not make costly turnovers.  Florida can exploit turnovers with a better transition game than Kentucky.
 
As The Computers Turn
 
The binarians just won't give Vanderbilt any credit.  Even after sweeping Kentucky, the updated computer averages pick the Commodores to win just one more game, that being at Ole Miss.  Listening to the bits and bytes, Vandy is predicted to finish 5-11 in the SEC and 14-13 overall in the regular season and then lose in the opening round of the conference tournament to end the year at 14-14.  Whether a .500 record would earn the black and gold an NIT bid is not something the artificial brains reveal.  Sounds like some of these computers may be infected with a virus.
 
The margin of loss predicted by the computers is so slim that if the Commodores were to win by double digits over the Gators tomorrow night, those very same pieces of electrical junk just might pick them to win every regular season game remaining on the schedule and with a slight home court advantage, win the SEC tournament as well! 
 
The schedule concludes with the three best SEC teams venturing to Nashville.  Vanderbilt just may have to win all three of these contests just to wind up on the discussion board at NCAA selection central.  Furthermore, the Commodores may have to win two of their remaining three road games (at Georgia, South Carolina, and Ole Miss).  While the task is not impossible, chances are better than 50-50 that the Commodores will come up one or two games short.
 
Computer Predictions
Tuesday
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
South Carolina
74
Alabama
68
 
 
 
 
Wednesday
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Tennessee
98
Auburn
80
L S U
74
Mississippi State
56
Arkansas
75
Ole Miss
70
Kentucky
74
Georgia
67
Florida
74
Vanderbilt
70

 
The Mid-Major Bubble-Busters
 
Only 26 days to go until the collegiate basketball nations gathers in front of their television sets to see the brackets revealed.  With the Atlantic Coast, Big 10, and Big East dominating the power ratings, how many SEC teams get invitations to the dance will be greatly affected by the number of mid-major at-large berths.  There are a handful of teams that will receive bids even if they fail to gain an automatic ticket.  Here are the top mid-major contenders (number after record is average of six RPIs):
 
Locks
 
Gonzaga 20-3 (9):  The Bulldogs not only are already in the Big Dance, they have an excellent shot of garnering a number two seed.  With Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista hitting on all cylinders, the Zags can make it to the Final Four.  Maybe the only thing that can stop Morrison is his diabetes.
 
Northern Iowa 21-5 (16):  Winning at Iowa and LSU gives UNI two wins over possible major conference champions.  The Panthers host Bucknell in this weekend's Bracket Buster.  UNI coach Greg McDermott's being mentioned as one of the co-favorites for the Missouri opening may have some negative effect if the distractions begin to mount.
 
Top Contenders
 
Wichita State 20-6 (23): The Shockers have no intention of making a repeat appearance in the NIT where Vanderbilt put the shock into them last year.  Five of WSU's six losses have come at the hands of Illinois, Michigan State, Southern Illinois, and Northern Iowa (twice).  Wichita hosts George Mason in this week's Bracket Buster.  Coach Mark Turgeon could be in the hunt for a bigger job.
 
Southern Illinois 18-6 (30): The Salukis have righted the ship after being upset at home by Indiana State and falling to Wichita State in double overtime.  Winning at Creighton places them back on the good side of the bubble.  SIU hosts Louisiana Tech in this Saturday's Bracket Buster.
 
Missouri State 16-7 (31): Although the Bears might no longer tell you they are from the southwest part of the Show-me state, they have shown an ability to score points in droves, topping 80 points 12 times this year.  The Bears must travel to Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the Bracket Buster.
 
George Mason 19-5 (32): The Patriots have lost to Creighton, Wake Forest, and Old Dominion, while owning wins over Manhattan and Virginia Commonwealth on the road.  A win at Wichita State in Saturday's bracket buster could clinch an at-large bid if GMU advances past the first round of the Colonial Conference tournament.
 
The Rest
 
Creighton 17-6 (33): Hosts Fresno State in Bracket Buster
 
Wisconsin-Milwaukee 17-6 (36): Hosts Missouri State in Bracket Buster
 
Bucknell 20-3 (39): Plays at Northern Iowa in best of the Bracket Busters
 
I did not include George Washington in this group since the Atlantic 10 is still considered a major conference.  The Missouri Valley Conference should be considered as such and may after this season

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