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Vanderbilt basketball is an escape from all the laws of probability. It goes like this. First there is the dog, a long, brown basset hound, who precedes the cheerleaders, the teams, the color guard and everybody else out onto the floor. The dog has a dislocated hip and cannot go to his left well, but he sets the stage.
Next comes the Commodore, who is dressed just like old Cornelius must have been before he cornered the market in ships and trains in New York. The Commodore is a very big man on campus, but he is not too big with the starting team of visitors, whose hands he shakes out there at midcourt. The Commodore says that, by his greeting, he is "placating" the feelings of the opposition in order to offset the boos, jeers, catcalls and ice cubes that are occasionally hurled at them by the inhabitants of Memorial Gymnasium. But he is not fooling anyone. Just by his welcome, the Commodore manages to make a visiting starter look like a real jackass.
Following this, a large trapeze descends from the rafters, only to rise right back up after the ROTC boys have fixed the Stars and Stripes to it, just so. Then the announcer, Mr. Herman Grizzard, says, "Hello, referees, how are you?" over the public-address system, and he wishes them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And finally, in Nashville, Tenn., "the Heart of Banana Land," "the Athens of the South," "Music City, USA"—a veritable paradise if you want to pick a guitar or tamper with a jury—Vanderbilt University is ready for basketball.
Right there the gimmickery stops, momentarily at least. When the home team hits the floor, there are no more tricks or pranks or fancy frills. No one-man shows or slow-death offenses are to be seen. The Commodores are small and slight, but they win on quickness and well-trained skills, and last week, after home-court victories over three bigger and much stronger opponents, Vanderbilt stood alone as college basketball's newest, boldest and most wonderful prodigy.
Perhaps the present Commodore style was presaged by one of Vandy's own alumni when he wrote about the Great Scorer coming "to write against your name." Grantland Rice ( Vanderbilt '01) said it was "not that you won or lost, but how you played the game." And though most realists would agree with Adolph Rupp ("If that's the point, why keep score?"), it is true, nevertheless, that the Vanderbilt team of today plays the game the way it was meant to be played. The Commodores prosper on diligent execution of basic patterns and marvelous insouciance under pressure, and then—back to the gimmick board—they come on to beat you by completely implausible means.
Chuck Daly, the Duke assistant coach, delineated part of the Commodores' picture. "They are well coached, well drilled and poised," he said. "They shock you with fantastic scrap and hustle, and they get loose balls and come off the floor at you like animals." Daly's team was the one that got the Vanderbilt treatment in Nashville most recently. The treatment prescribes that the Commodores must be sick and lame and hopelessly behind, only to cast off their slings and crutches and roar back to catch you at the gun. Saturday night, against a Duke team that is better than even Head Coach Vic Bubas believed it to be. Bo Wyenandt, pale after a three-day sickbed siege of the flu, scored on an 18-foot jump shot with four seconds left to win for Vanderbilt 76-75.
Circumstances before this shot, however, hardly foretold the end. Besides Wyenandt, starters Kenny Campbell and Bob Warren also lay in bed with flu for three days prior to the game. The Commodores' star shooter, Tom Hagan, picked up four fouls before the half. Vanderbilt was behind most of the game, and at one point trailed by 11. Furthermore, Campbell did not even play, Wyenandt and Warren were in together for only a few minutes at a time and Hagan fouled out with more than two minutes left. So not only did Vanderbilt win on the court, but Coach Roy Skinner proved he is going to be hard to beat as a psychologist also.
After the Vandy students showered the floor with boos and those ice cubes following Hagan's disqualifying foul, smooth Roy stepped to the microphone. He did not say please be kind to the visitors, for they are our friends. He said, "We can still win this game. But if you keep up this stuff, we may get a technical foul and lose the whole thing. Please help us." That is the Vanderbilt treatment in Nashville.
Previously the Commodores had beaten North Carolina and Davidson, achievements which, combined with the Duke win, made a hat trick that wiped out the entire state of North Carolina in eight days and gave Vanderbilt undisputed, if temporary, possession of the South. Carolina may have a better team than the one that went to the NCAA final round of four in Louisville last year. Since its loss to Vanderbilt, it has defeated Kentucky and Princeton. But in Nashville, the Commodores neutralized 6'11" Rusty Clark and the other big Tar Heels on the boards, held Larry Miller in check until late in the game and shot 64% in the second half to win going away 89-76. Vandy's victory over Davidson was more difficult, since the Commodores had to come from 13 points behind on a night when their shooting was cold and four starters were burdened with four personals much of the second half.
Davidson has veteran Center Rod Knowles and two large sophomores up front, and is even stronger inside than North Carolina. But despite this disadvantage, Vanderbilt showed its versatility on defense. Forced out of their press and fallback zone early in the opening period, the Commodores went into a man-for-man and began overplaying Davidson's big men on the strong side and sagging their guards back to double-team inside. They stopped the Wildcats' penetration underneath and surged back to win when Hagan, after missing a shot at the end of regulation time, scored from 25 feet at the gun of an overtime.