Tuesday, March 2, 2010

March 2nd : 3 SEC Champs not named Kentucky

This begins the last week of the 2009-2010 SEC basketball regular season. The SEC tournament starts next Thursday at Nashville's Sommet Center, which hosted the 2001 and 2006 SEC Tournaments. There was a time when today's date would have already wrapped up the SEC Champion.

On this date in 1974, Alabama and Vanderbilt were each 14-2 in SEC play. Each of the Tide's SEC losses were heartbreaking last second losses to Vandy- 73-72 in Nashville and 67-65 in Tuscaloosa. The Commodores lost a fight-marred game in Baton Rouge to LSU 84-81 and were upset in Nashville 59-53 by Tennessee the week before. With two games left in the 18 game conference season, Alabama needed to either win both of its games in league play and hope Vandy lost one or split its two and hope Vandy lost both. In order to participate in post-season play the Tide couldn't lose either game.

This was one year before the NCAA allowed more than the conference champion ,or representative as Maryland and the ACC's case the prior year. With Vandy having the head to head tie breaker, they'd get the NCAA bid. Unfortunately the NIT ,where the Tide advanced to the tourney's final four the year before,wasn't an option ,nor was the short lived Conference Commissioner's Association tournament in St Louis. Alabama was hosting the NCAA's Mideast Regional two weeks later. By hosting an NCAA tournament, a school gave up its option of participating in another tourney with the NCAA citing attendance concerns if the local team was in New York at the NIT or St Louis at the CCA tourney.

Alabama was in Gainesville to face the Gators while Vandy entertained Kentucky on "Senior Night" in Nashville. Both Alabama and Vanderbilt had won the first game against tonight's foes in the SEC's round robin schedule. Alabama beat Florida 98-79 in Tuscaloosa while Vanderbilt downed Kentucky, 82-65 in Lexington.

Senior Night '74 in Nashville for Vanderbilt's Jan van Breda Kolff (left to right),Terry Compton, Lee Fowler and Bill Ligon. The Commodores nipped Kentucky, 71-69 to secure a share of the SEC title and the SEC's NCAA bid

Before today's O'Connell Center, Florida played its games in Alligator Alley which wasn't too much bigger than a high school gymnasium where it maxed out at 6,000 tops. But it was a house of horrors for the SEC elite in the 1970's, like a poor man's Cameron Indoor Stadium. Many an SEC team fighting for the league title lost a heart breaker or stole one by the skin of its teeth.

The seventh ranked Tide lost 64-61 at a packed,rowdy house in Gainesville to the Gators. The Gator faithful were treated that evening not only to an upset win over the Tide,but a performance at halftime by the Florida Gymnastics team.It wasn't the ladies who generated the most buzz after the halftime show. A 'streaker' ran across the floor during the show adorned only in tennis shoes and a red scarf ,which was becoming an odd national phenomena. Ray Stevens' hit about the craze entitled "The Streak" hit #1 in the music charts in America and England in May of 1974.The streaker alluded police and ran outside a side door to the thunderous approval of the roaring crowd.

Neither Vandy nor Alabama were ranked as high in '74 as Ethel and "The Streak"

Meanwhile in Nashville, Kentucky which was en route to its first non winning season since 1967 gave Vanderbilt everything it wanted, but the Commodores eked out a 71-69 victory giving Vandy a share of the SEC title and a berth in the NCAA tournament in Tuscaloosa. It was Vanderbilt's second SEC title and first since 1965. It ended a streak of seven seasons where Kentucky had won the SEC's bid to the tournament. Alabama did wind up with a share of the title by defeating Auburn two nights later after Vanderbilt lost its last conference game -- to Florida -- at Alligator Alley in Gainesville.

1973-1974 SEC Champion Vanderbilt Commodores

Five years later, the SEC brought back the post season SEC tournament which originally had ended after the 1951-1952 season. From the 1979-1980 season through the 1988-1989 season the tournament had a set bracket where the top four teams had a one game bye into the quarterfinals and teams 5 through 10 played a first round game with the winners advancing.Not in the 1979 tournament,though.

Game program for the first SEC Basketball Tournament since 1952

In one of the oddest formats ever and thankfully short lived, the tournament format provided a two game bye for the top two teams in the league. LSU ,who won the regular season title at 14-4 for its first SEC title since 1953 and runner-up Tennessee at 12-6 would advance to the semifinals against teams that had already played twice.

LSU went first that evening and drew defending SEC and NCAA champion , Kentucky. Earlier in the season, the Tigers had defeated Kentucky in Lexington for the first time ever, 93-89. A 70-61 a few weeks later gave LSU its first season sweep of Kentucky ever. However, the 'trifecta' never materialized. The Wildcats opened the tourney with an 82-77 win over Ole Miss and then hung on for an incredible 101-100 win over Alabama. Even with the NCAA tournament inviting more than one team from a conference now, Kentucky knew it would have to win the tournament and secure the automatic bid to make the NCAA tourney.

Kentucky won easily 80-67 which wasn't nearly as close as the final score may indicate. Even with eventual transfer Dwight Anderson breaking his wrist in the opening minute, Kentucky couldn't miss and LSU couldn't score. Of course the Tigers were saddled themselves with some self-inflicted pain as All-SEC forward DeWayne "the Astronaut" Scales took the advice of an agent and decided to show off his passing skills as opposed to his shooting touch. Scales' nickname came about from his incredible leaping ability. But for LSU fans, the name also took on a double entendre as Scales made some curious decisions as if he were from another planet.Regular season champion LSU set the stage for short lived trips to the tourney for the regular season champion. The regular season champion wouldn't win the SEC tournament until Kentucky did so in 1984.

Kentucky All-American Kyle Macy had 29 pts in rout of regular season champ LSU

The Vols came into Birmingham on a roll having won six straight including a 60-55 win in Auburn six days earlier, the same Auburn where UT would finally play a game in the tourney. Auburn was on somewhat of a roll having upset third seed Vanderbilt 59-53 the first day and defeated Georgia 95-91 the night before in four overtimes in a game where surprisingly,Auburn never trailed.Auburn hung tight for the first 35 minutes, but finally ran out of gas as Tennessee pulled away and won 75-64 advancing to the tourney finals to face Kentucky,whom they defeated in overtime 75-69 to advance to the NCAA tournament.Future WWE star Kevin Nash tallied two points and two rebounds for the Big Orange. Kentucky went on to the NIT,along with fourth place Mississippi State, as regular season champion LSU received an 'at large bid'.(this was quite a perk for the league as the year before even with the NCAA and NIT selecting potentially two teams each from a conference,only eventual National Champion Kentucky was in post season play.)
Pro Wrestler Kevin Nash played for the 1979 SEC Tourney Champion Tennessee Vols
In 1985, three teams came into the regular season finale on March 2nd with a shot at the SEC title: old pro Kentucky,LSU looking for its third SEC title in seven years and Georgia looking for its first SEC title ,period.Two years earlier when Georgia made its improbable run to the 1983 Final Four as the "other team" along with NC State,Louisville and Houston, the Dogs were a paltry 9-9 in SEC play and was the six seed in the SEC tourney they eventually won securing their first ever NCAA bid. LSU and Georgia were tied for first at 12-5 and Kentucky was a game behind at 11-6.

Kentucky and LSU met earlier in the day in Baton Rouge . Earlier in the season in Lexington, Kentucky won a low scoring game 53-43.This was just part of the difficult path the preseason pick for the title Tigers took. A week later at home against Georgia, whom LSU had defeated in Athens by 5 earlier in the season, the Tigers looked like they had secured a one point win when a missed Bulldog basket was knocked out of bounds by a Dawg with :01 left. All LSU had to do was throw it and the clock would run out. Well,throw it in and have it touched by a player. LSU super freshman John Williams, who indeed did have a fine two year stay in Baton Rouge,threw a pass past midcourt to no one and the ball sailed out of bounds on the other baseline for a turnover. With a reprieve,under their own basket Georgia found leading scorer Cedric Henderson for a catch and shoot at the foul line. In one of many bizarre endings to a seemingly quiet series between the two, Henderson's 15 footer found nothing but net as Georgia stole one in Baton Rouge, 59-58 as LSU fell to 7-5 in league play.

Kentucky's Joe B. Hall was a member of Kentucky's 1948-49 National Champion and was the head coach of UK's 1977-1978 National Champion

But LSU battled back to win its next 5 SEC games and needed a win vs Kentucky to get at least a share of the title. Kentucky in what turned out to be Joe B. Hall's final season needed a win and Georgia loss to Tennessee for a share and 'three way title' twixt LSU,Georgia and UK. LSU won 67-61 behind none other than freshman John Williams' 19 points and 9 rebounds. The loss gave UK's Hall a 6-7 mark in Baton Rouge only his third record in an SEC opponent's home in his fine 13 year career.
John Williams and Dale Brown would be featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story eight months later in a November 1985 issue

Later that evening in Knoxville , Tennessee defeated Georgia 86-85 denying the Bulldogs a share of the SEC title. This had to have been an excruciating loss to Georgia's Hugh Durham not only in missing out on a share of the SEC title, but in losing to Tennessee's Don DeVoe whom had accused Georgia of an assortment of violations drawing the ire of Durham who referred to DeVoe as "Judge DeVoe".
Hugh Durham took Florida State to the Final Four in 1972 as well as with Georgia in 1983

LSU climbed back into the top 20 for the first time since January 1 along with Georgia. LSU's win over UK giving the Tigers the SEC title was LSU's last of the season. LSU was mired in a horrible post season slump dating back to the 1981 Final Four. LSU lost both games in Philadelphia having the misfortune of being the last team to ever lose the Final Four consolation game ,which was being played the same afternoon about 150 miles south President Reagan was shot. LSU was one and done in SEC tournament and or NCAA/NIT play through the 1985 season. LSU would go on and lose to Auburn in Birmingham a week later and be humiliated as #4 seed in the NCAA tournament and lose to #13 Navy and David Robinson 78-55 giving LSU its tenth straight tournament loss.

Georgia and Kentucky made the NCAA tournament, as did Alabama and Auburn. All made a surprise run to the Sweet 16 ,except Georgia who lost in the second round to Illinois.

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