A Great Finale For The SEC Champs

In all of Vanderbilt basketball history, one season stands out as the standard-bearer. In 1964-65, the Commodores had all the tools needed to compete for a national title. Even with the mid-season loss of Roger Schurig, this team still had enough firepower to beat any other college team.

It all started with the greatest player in Vanderbilt history. Junior center Clyde Lee dominated inside. The 6-10 pivot man could hit the jumper from 15 feet away, score on several different inside muscle moves, control both boards, stop opponents from scoring inside, and pass and move as well as any big man in the nation. To say Lee was Mickey Mantle on the collegiate hardwoods is not an overstatement.

6-08 senior power forward Bob "Snake" Grace was the perfect compliment to Lee. Known around the league as a "hatchet man," Grace had actually led the conference in rebounding as a sophomore before switching from center to forward once Lee joined the varsity. The agile, yet powerful forward from Guthrie, Kentucky, could carry the team offensively if the opposition concentrated too much of their efforts on Lee.

Small forward Wayne Taylor was the team's defensive specialist. The 6-05 senior could guard just about any player Vandy faced. He could shut down the opponents' best scorer man-to-man without getting much help. Offensively, Taylor excelled in running the fast break, and he went through periods where he had the hot hand.

6-03 shooting guard Keith Thomas began the season as the sixth man. When Schurig was forced to leave the team after first semester exams, Thomas moved into the starting lineup and began to display some of the best outside shooting skills ever to be put on display at Memorial Gymnasium. Not just a one dimensional player, Thomas was cat-like quick. He frequently sped by defenders on the fast break, and he could drive by opponents getting to the basket and drawing fouls.

The quarterback of the team was 6-01 senior John Ed Miller. The point guard from Union City, Tennessee, was the complete perimeter player. He could hit the jumper from 22 feet out, get the ball inside to Lee and Grace, finish the fast break better than any other SEC player, steal the ball, and play more than capable defense.

On the bench, sixth man Wayne Calvert was instant offense. The 6-03 swing man could score 20 points in 10-12 minutes of action. Calvert was known as "Pops" since he was married and had a three-year-old son in 1965.

Ron Green could have started for eight or nine other SEC teams. The 6-07 forward was a smaller imitation of Lee. If you are old enough to remember Frank Kornet in the late 1980's, you have a sense of how Green played.

6-05 forward Kenny Gibbs would eventually replace Lee in the pivot in 1966-67. The Somerset, Kentucky, native had moments in the championship season where he showed everyone just how good we would be before graduating.

6-08 Garner Petrie rounded out the lineup. With a glut of talent inside, Petrie's minutes were limited. At times, he made some plays that showed he belonged on this team.

The Commodores breezed to the Southeastern Conference championship with a 15-1 league record. 12 of the 15 victories came by double digit margins. Already having clinched the crown and berth in the NCAA "Sweet 16," the Commodores wrapped up the regular season with home games against Tulane and LSU. The Commodores quickly disposed of the Green Wave 85-62, and there was one final home game to play as a sendoff to the Mideast Regionals in Lexington, Kentucky.

LSU was no power in 1965, but the Tigers had more than pride to play for in their season finale. The purple Bengals entered this game with a 12-13 record. An upset could give them a .500 record. Earlier in the season in Baton Rouge, Vandy won 96-85, but LSU's big men held their own against Lee and Grace.

Forward Dick Maile was a consensus all-SEC pick. He led the Tigers with a 17.5 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game average. Center Bill Wilson averaged 9.6 boards per game, giving the Tigers a rebounding duo second only to Lee and Grace. Forward Harry Heroman was a streaky shooter who could score points rapidly when he got the hot hand. Fouling him was a losing proposition, as he connected on well over 80% of his free tosses. In the backcourt, Wayne Tipton was over-sized for a guard in the 1960's. He frequently took smaller defenders inside. Point guard Brad Brian scored most of his points from outside. When opponents sagged inside to stop Maile and Wilson, Brian could burn them with a jumper. Two players contributed most of the reserve points; Sophomore Kenny Drost had the potential to be a star one day, while post player Tommy Thigpen offered the Tigers another option inside. 

The strength of this LSU squad was its inside power. The Tigers averaged 50 rebounds a game and many of their 12 wins were attributed to their controlling the boards. If an opponent could stop their inside game, the perimeter game was not good enough to win on its own.

Vandy won the tap, and Lee scored on a tip-in of a missed shot to give Vandy a 2-0 lead. Heroman responded with a short basket to knot the score at 2-2. That was the last tie of the game. After Lee scored on a basket just a foot or two away from the rim, the Commodores led for good. Thomas followed with a long jumper, and then Grace wheeled inside on Maile and hit a basket while being fouled. He completed the three-point play by sinking the foul shot to make it 7-2.

Nine minutes into the game, Vandy led 15-12. At that point, great pressure defense and the fast break put the game out of reach. It started with Lee hitting a single shot from the charity stripe. Following a Tiger turnover, Thomas hit from outside to make it 18-12. Lee, Grace, and Gibbs proceeded to hit from inside, and when Taylor hit back-to-back jumpers, the Commodores led 28-14, Heromans's jumper being the only LSU points in a six-minute stretch.

Lee closed out the half scoring six points in the final two minutes, and the Commodores went to the break up 42-21. Big Clyde had 14 points.

After Tipton started the second half with a bucket for LSU, the Commodores went on another long run to make this game a slaughter. Lee controlled the inside at both ends of the floor, dominating on the boards and scoring almost at will against Wilson. When Lee couldn't retrieve a missed shot, Grace was there on the opposite side of the basket to pull down the missed shot. LSU's perimeter players collapsed inside to help stop Lee, and Thomas made them pay by hitting several outside jumpers.

A short hook by Lee pushed the lead to 25 points at 57-32. A long jumper by Miller pushed the lead over 30 points at 65-34. A tip-in by Gibbs six minutes later gave the Commodores a 41-point lead at 88-47 with five and a half minutes to go. A driving one-hander by Calvert made the 1964-65 scoreboard move from "99" to "01." Prior to gym expansion in 1969, the old Coca-Cola-sponsored scoreboard only included spots for two digits for each team's score. As happened four or five times every year during the Roy Skinner era, two digits were not always enough for the Commodores.

When Petrie entered the game and sank a short jumper to make the score 105-67, every Commodore had scored. Thomas hit one foul shot, and Thigpen hit a lay-up at the buzzer to make the final score 106-69 Vandy.

What was supposed to be a hard-fought battle of the boards never developed into such. Vanderbilt dominated at both ends, winning this battle by 41 at 79-38! Lee led the way with 19 rebounds, while Grace added 16. Off the bench, Green and Gibbs both hauled in seven missed shots. Even Thomas and Miller got into the act finishing with six and five respectively. 

The efforts of the Commodore guards outnumbered the regular two big LSU rebounders. Wilson and Maile combined for just eight boards.

Vanderbilt finished the game shooting 46 of 91 from the field for 50.5%, while LSU couldn't get inside for baskets and hit just 25 of 87 for a paltry 28.7%. At the foul line, Vandy hit on 14 of 20 for 70%, while LSU connected on 19 of 27 for 70.4%.

Lee led the scoring onslaught for the Gold Men with 26 points. Thomas hit for 18 and Miller added 14. Gibbs came off the bench to chip in 12 points, while Taylor and Grace narrowly missed out on double figures with nine points apiece.

Maile tried 20 shots for the Tigers, but Lee and Grace were always close by to force him to shoot from out of his comfort range. The LSU star connected on only three of those 20 attempts and added just one free throw for seven points. Thigpen led the Tigers from off the bench with 16 points. Heroman scored 15 points, but he hooked up only 6 of 17 from the field. Tipton scored 14 points.

The win ended the Vanderbilt regular season at 23 wins and three losses and a perfect 14-0 at home (outscoring opponents at Memorial Gym by an average of 86.4 to 69.5). Commodore fans left the gym feeling confident their team would do well in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. 

Three More Big Home Wins Over LSU

January 31, 1976

All-SEC guard Kenny Higgs popped in 29 points, picked up six rebounds and doled out five assists and center Ed LeBlanc recorded a double-double with 14 points and 15 rebounds, but the Commodores prevailed 103-90 thanks to outstanding efforts by Butch Feher and Joe Ford. Feher scored 28 points and picked up nine rebounds, while Ford scored 21 points. 

The Commodores connected on 37 out of 44 free throw attempts, while LSU hit only 12 of 21. Vandy forced the Tigers to commit 22 turnovers, and the Bayou Bengals fouled rather than give up easy baskets. 

LSU led early by as much as eight points at 12-4. The Commodores' fast break struck lightning midway through the first half, and the Gold Men went on a 26-4 run, with Ford and Feher scoring 19 of the 26 points.

Leading 57-37 to start the second half, the black and gold lengthened the lead to 31 points in the opening seven minutes. At that point, Coach Skinner began going deep into his bench. Carl Crain, Tim Thompson, Jay Lowenthal, Keith Page, Mike Moore, Spence Young, and Neil Bemenderfer all saw considerable time off the bench. LSU made a run at the end to reduce the deficit to 13; a lay-up by Young in the final minute put the Commodores over the century mark.

February 18, 1989

With a share of first place in the SEC up for grabs, these two teams battled it out at Memorial Gym in front of a prime time national television audience. Freshman sensation Chris Jackson entered this game averaging 30 points per contest, and he showcased his skills for the nation. Commodore coach C.M. Newton learned his basketball strategy from his mentor Adolph Rupp. Rupp believed that one star could not beat a five-man team. Newton was concerned with stopping the other four LSU starters—Ricky Blanton, Wayne Sims, Vernel

Singleton, and Lyle Mouton. 

Vanderbilt started a balanced quintet including forwards Barry Booker and Eric Reid, center Frank Kornet, and guards Barry Goheen and Derrick Wilcox. Prime contributors off the bench by this point of the schedule were forward Steve Grant and center Alberto Ballestra. Charles Mayes supplied support in the backcourt.

Jackson proved to be nearly unstoppable scoring more than one point per minute played. He finished with 38 points on 14 of 25 shooting and 6 of 12 from behind the arc. The rest of the Tiger team could only manage 14 field goals. Blanton was held to a 3 of 10 shooting effort and ended the game with just seven points in 35 minutes of play.

Vanderbilt spread the ball around and attacked the LSU junk defense. The starting five combined for 33 of 58 shooting from the field and 8 of 16 from three-point land. Goheen continually drove the lane on the smaller LSU guards and drew foul after foul. He connected on all 10 of his free throw attempts. 

The two teams played rather even ball for the first 20 minutes with Vandy forging ahead just before the buzzer. At the half, it was 41-36 Commodores.

The second half reminded many black and gold faithful of the 1960's. LSU missed a shot, a Commodore retrieved the rebound, and two or three points were quickly scored on the fast break. The lead quickly ballooned to 10, then 15, then 20, then, 25, and finally 30 points. All five Commodore starters got in on the action and reached double figures. Vandy cruised to an outstanding 108-74 blowout.

The two Barry's combined for 44 points with Goheen scoring 23 and Booker adding 21. Kornet tallied 17 points, while Wilcox added 13 and Reid had 12. All five starters hauled in five or more rebounds, as Vandy dominated the glass by a count of 43 to 23. Late in the game, Coach Newton inserted freshman Todd Milholland into the game. He quickly tallied nine points in just three minutes of action, outscoring the Tigers' starting center Singleton who only mustered eight points in 31 minutes.

February 15, 1992 (demolishing the Shaq)

The 10-10 Commodores were a depleted team. Two future NBA players, Matt Maloney and John Amaechi, had transferred out of the program thinking that once transfers Billy McCaffrey and Chris Lawson became eligible in November of 1992, they wouldn't be seeing much playing time. So, this team relied on eight players to carry the load. Bruce Elder and Dan Hall were the forwards; Todd Milholland started at center; and Ronnie McMahan and Kevin Anglin started at guard. The three principal reserves were center Chris Woods, forward Bryan Milburn, and tiny guard Aaron Beth.

LSU simply had the best player in all of college basketball starting at center. Junior Shaquille O'Neal entered this game scoring at a 25-point clip and averaging better than 14 rebounds a game. Defensively, he was quite intimidating averaging close to six blocked shots and many more altered shots per game.

Coach Eddie Fogler's brilliant collapsing defense made it tough for Shaq's teammates to pass him the ball. When he got the ball, three Commodores trapped him on the block. O'Neal couldn't get many open looks.

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt passed the ball around the horn and maneuvered to get open looks from the outside. McMahan and Anglin were the recipients of several excellent screens and found themselves open time and time again. When they took those open shots, they hit better than half of them. Once LSU's defense was forced to spread out to stop the onslaught from the perimeter, the high post was vacated defensively for Milholland. Leaving Big Todd open from 15 feet away was close to conceding a lay-up for other post players.

Vanderbilt's first 20 minutes of action couldn't have been any better. Vandy surprised a regionally televised audience and 15,378 fans with their best half of the season. The Commodores connected on 16 of 25 shots in the opening stanza, while LSU could muster only 10 of 24 from the field. At the break, Vandy led 36-23.

LSU made some runs in the second half behind some fine moves by Vernel Singleton and Clarence Ceasar. However, Milholland and Hall kept Shaq away from the glass, and the big, seven-foot all-American was virtually no offensive factor in the game. Vandy held on for a 76-69 win to pull off the national upset of the day.

Shaq scored a season low 10 points on 5 of 10 shooting. He managed to pull down 11 rebounds, mostlyseveral near the end when Vanderbilt was comfortably ahead. Defensively, he failed to block a shot and didn't move to stop Milholland's foul line jumpers.

McMahan and Anglin both topped 20 points. McMahan led all scorers with 26, while Anglin added 21. Elder was the third Commodore in double figures with 11.

Aside from the final score, the glaring surprise in the stats was in the rebounding department. Vanderbilt not only held their own on the boards, they won the battle outright by a margin of 31-26. 

February 22, 2006

Vanderbilt has definitely found the formula to conclude the season successfully. All the Gold Men must do is arrange for every remaining opponent to suspend three players and be forced to play a 1-3-1 zone against Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, Dan Cage, Alex Gordon, and DeMarre Carroll. Giving the Commodores 25-30 open looks from behind the arc is a proposition all black and gold fans can fantasize about. Alas, LSU will not play zone against Vandy.

Conventional wisdom says the Commodores will have to hold onto the ball and be patient, since they are not liable to get many second shots per possession. However, I think the Tigers are vulnerable to a quicker-paced game with a maximum number of possessions. Houston beat them earlier in the year by exploiting the Tigers' then-slow defensive reaction to transition. The Cougars repeatedly took open shots off transition and quick ball movement, especially from behind the arc.

This may be a game where Vandy must live by the three. I don't see the Commodores playing at a deliberate pace and winning the game by penetrating the heart of the Tiger defense. Open shots inside may have to come from the fast break and passing inside to open teammates once LSU is forced to stretch their defense to stop the perimeter attack.

Regardless of the outcome, this should be an interesting contrast of personnel. As you watch this game, concentrate on how Vandy's players are making LSU's players extend their defense. If the Tigers can keep their defenders relatively packed in, it's going to be a long night. If LSU has to stretch their defense out leaves holes inside for penetration and post feeds, Vandy can pull off the upset and head to Ole Miss with a chance to get square in the SEC.

Defensively, the Commodores must work diligently to keep Davis away from the ball, and try to limit Darrel Mitchell's touches.

Those Dastardly Computer Ratings

First, I must say that none of the nation's leading computer experts have a way to alter their ratings when multiple players don't suit up for one team. I'm sure that had the binary geniuses been able to calculate new ratings based on this fact, then Vanderbilt would have been their choice last Saturday night in Athens. Now that Vanderbilt has emerged with another huge road win, how does this affect their ratings? Lo and behold, they are currently picked to beat LSU, Ole Miss, and Tennessee and finish 8-8 in the regular season, good enough for a third place tie with Kentucky. Having already swept the Wildcats, that would give them the number three seed. 

Ah, there's the rub. A third seed would more than likely place Vandy against their worst SEC Tournament nemesis—Auburn. The Tigers have the Commodores' number in post-season play. Starting back in 1942, the War Eagles ended the Commodores' season in the SEC Tournament. When the tournament returned in 1979, third-seeded Vanderbilt faced ninth-seeded Auburn in the opening round (due to a ridiculous seeding formula that first year). After sweeping the Tigers in the regular season, Auburn ended the Wayne Dobbs coaching era in Nashville with a 59-53 upset.

The two teams next met in the postseason in round two of the SEC Tournament at Vanderbilt in 1984. This was Sonny Smith's most talented team with Charles Barkley and Chuck Person. Vanderbilt played valiantly, but fell 59-58.

Move ahead 10 seasons. Billy McCaffrey's senior year in 1994 saw the Commodores squarely on the NCAA bubble. After forging a 9-7 regular season conference record with a couple of impressive out of conference wins (including a 92-75 win over Kevin Stallings' Illinois State team), all that was needed was a first round win to put the Commodores over the top. Once again, Auburn spoiled the party with an 81-56 blowout that sent the Commodores on the road to Norman, Oklahoma and the NIT.

Just two seasons later, Vanderbilt once again sat on the NCAA bubble. The SEC record was only 7-9, but with wins over UCLA, Virginia, Arkansas, and Mississippi State, it looked like two wins in the SEC Tournament could get the 17-12 Commodores in the Big Dance. Auburn defeated Vandy in the opening round. 

Last year saw the Tigers hand Vandy yet another disappointing SEC Tournament defeat. Needing probably just one and no more than two tournament wins to get in the Big Dance, the Commodores laid an egg in a 77-73 defeat. 

All told, Vandy is 0-6 against Auburn in the SEC Tournament, yet 74-44 against them in the regular season. 

Predicted Scores

Arkansas 77
Alabama 70
Auburn 79
Mississippi State 76
Georgia 68
South Carolina 67
Kentucky 76
Ole Miss 62
Florida 85
Tennessee 78
Vanderbilt 67
L S U 66

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